Senses of Completion

I was in the building department yesterday, coming off the elevator between 4 different floors with various disconnected tasks in each and getting off in the 7th to make sure or triple verify that the road compliance had been entered and I passed by the guy who’d once run the group, through two retirements of plan checkers on our project, and I told him we were finally done with it and he says
Funny as I’d been thinking of that Leonard Cohen song (and probably more the Rufus Wainwright version which is younger and stronger and clearer and yet the old and broken one is really the one).
Fortunately we’re not totally broken but the entrails of the process could do it to you.
On Tuesday we finally got our Specific Plan Compliance signoff and then Wednesday the road– funny we’d had multiple multiples of inspections of each, all to assure we were doing it according to approved plans but we needed to have an approval in the end to verify that. I kept thinking to myself the rewind is going to be quite difficult from here.
But when those two documents came to my inbox I was positively elated. And it in turn makes the real finishing steps so vivid and meaningful.
One box to check of both the roadwork and the specific plan was dealing with the slope that was essentially aftermath of the construction. Of course there’s a plan and an attitude about site but there’s also the budget draining through the grates of this protracted finish and before making decisive moves I wanted to be sure we could pay for them, immediately. And then there’s work and life in general so the side job of this gets added to a long list of things to do, it’s nice to have clarity about what’s to be done.
Just when I’d thought the road was done the inspector called to tell me we’d need jute netting for the slopes (in order to get the final sign off). After doing it it’s obvious, but when requested it seems like just another burden. The jute netting holds the earth in place, and would seem to mitigate the water runoff by creating a miniature stepped terrace landscape between the draped horizontal cording and the dirt. Given a call and a day between this new implementation deadline I rang up the guys who put in our gingkoes and quickly made a deal to have them return and install this stuff. Sourcing it was a bit problematic, perhaps as rainy season approaches there’s an understandable runup in sales.

Jute Netting Between the Stair and the Curb
The day before Thanksgiving I drove down to Escondido to get the Sunset Manzanitas- these weren’t part of a plan with the city but I thought they may need to be planted for Compliance and good to get them in the ground now in their peak growing time (rainy season ahead here).

Las Pilitas Nursery, Escondido
Here was the field of plants- funny to see coming around a remote deserted bend off the freeway. It had grown in my imagination as I looked for plants and discovered them to be the largest supplier. Tracking them down reminded me of the Hunt brothers and silver as I’d checked the indexes and found a nursery with almost all of them in our state (in the world?) unevenly divided between a north and south outpost. I got 55 of the 75 down south and put them in my car:

Trunkful of Manzanita
I’d thought of getting 45 based on planting them every 4′ on center and the area we’d fill. They advised me this would be the most dense they’d recommend, and even better at 5′ on center. Later when our friends’ gardener was to plant them he suggested closer together, we got 10 more and maybe they’re in the 3-4′ range. They’re supposed to grow 6′ wide and around 4′ high. When I asked the seller how they’d look if planted per their suggestion they said a sort of undulating sea of bush, perfect. We bought so many but we bought at the bottom of the barrel, an army of runts. I asked what waiting for Spring’s new crop would give us and confirmed that these now would be bigger than what we could get then. And they’d be planted.

Leif Frang Villa Lau-Eide Bergen, Norway 1926
I like the way the greenery here is mounding in contrast to the house, which i also like. I’d never heard of this guy until I got a Taschen survey book the other day.

When I brought the sunset manzanitas back to the site and the jute netting was half done and I left them to be planted in their pattern.
Days later it’s rained and they have that wonderful perkiness that just planted plants get when they start setting their roots.
The material you see them in is called “Gorilla Hair” Mulch- shredded redwood that I’m excited to watch decompose. Here was a mountain of it at the nursery which I’d have hired to bring shovels full over if only we lived closer:

Gorilla Hair Mountain Las Pilitas Nursery Escondido, CA

For the moment it looks like instant rich soil:

View From Balcony Down Past Porch and Stairs to Street

And I’m excited to turn our focus inward and get working on our couch:

Couch Sketch (Green Corduroy)

A View Up the Stairs
I used a bonderized stepped flashing as an edge to contain the mulch from weeping onto the street. Thus far it’s held, though there’s been plenty of wind advisory in the air.

A View Down

Making Calls



As part of the Specific Plan for Mt. Washington, the community in northeast Los Angeles where we’re building this house for ourselves, one’s required to replace any removed trees at a ratio of 1:2.
The eucalyptus that stood on the northwest corner of our excavation seemed precarious already when I read that week of a similar one suddenly taking the life of someone in Costa Mesa. There the city moved swiftly to remove all of them from their downtown.

Our Shaggy Old Eucalyptus
Years ago, while the developer of the spec house to our west was framing it he’d furtively lopped off the side facing him. Perhaps it was to help clear the airspace for framing, perhaps to give an illusion of a larger view temporarily, in any case that along with a very large removal of earth from that side has left me kinda sore. In my practice I’ve heard all kinds of theory about property rights, usually of the rights of one party extending beyond their deeded boundary: trimming neighbor’s trees, adverse possession of others’ property, etc. so I’m compelled to occasionally research the current codes in case any might have shifted. With trees one should never cut a neighbor’s tree, just alert them that it’s growing on your property and allow access for maintenance of that incursion or suggest a long-term solution, though that maintenance responsibility unless otherwise agreed is still the tree owner’s job. One might expect cities to require Eucalyptus removal upon improvement similar to road paving/improvement, but apparently the immediate positives they bring as large trees offset concomitant hazards of toppling and flammability.

I’d had in mind building a screen to both contain our “yard” and give us some privacy from this boxy guy by our side, and researched ginkgoes after seeing this beautiful stand of them at my favorite spot in Huntington Gardens:

Huntington Gardens Gingkoes (recent picture from over the weekend)

Huntington Garden Gingkoes (in Japanese Zen Garden, via Alice’s Garden)
I love their color and the sense of season it gives. A friend said they’re property managers’ favorites as they drop all the leaves on a single day. And in spite of my annoyance at the improper siting of the neighbor with an orientation across our property, as if the possibility of building there didn’t exist, I did want to use something that will afford some transparency for them, say as compared to an evergreen, or a solid stand of cypress.

So in the next to last scheme I came up with before building this house, we established a line of trees parallel to the west property line:

Plan Scheme 8 Fall 2008

Axonometric Scheme 8 Fall 2008
This scheme was sort of hastily put together as time was winding down on getting started. I’d significantly reduced the square footage from the prior approved plans in hopes that the costs would fall as well. We’d gotten a bid for the previous scheme’s foundation (only) which exceeded $210,000, and it seemed if there wasn’t radical change the project might not happen.

Street (South) Elevation Scheme 6 Spring 2006

East Elevation Scheme 6 Spring 2006

The older scheme had a two-story retaining wall. It seemed reducing that by making a plinth of the second level, and therefore putting the main public spaces closer to the ground (and also eliminating a pool, etc.) would sharply lower costs. When I sent Scheme 8 to my engineer, Gordon Polon, he said “Padraic, aren’t you trying to make it cost less? It seems like you’ve just redistributed the walls across the site.” He was right. And I’m thankful for it, at that point I was willing to punt a bit, and it made me redouble my effort and eventually decide that if I was to expend all the physical energy necessary to make it happen I shouldn’t corner myself into some description dependent on compromise: “Well I did this because of that…”- I’m happy the constraints so emboldened me.

House 8, Entry Path
Here was the lawn we envisioned which would establish a territory in front of our house (or a deep zoom exaggeration of one- a central flaw in the diagram- after all the distance of a free throw does not a meadow make). By this time we’d decided to turn our back to the stale melba confection to our east, and it seemed like with the great savings we’d gain from making the building almost pre-fab (with SIPS panels!) we could afford to retain this higher ground. No longer would we experience the chasm between the imposing box to our left and our house, thereby relegating this “side yard” to transit only space, but we’d have a “lawn” from which we could foresee watching movies projected against the upper retaining to the left here.

House 8, Street Elevation
Another aspect of the scheme I liked was the overlapping of the windowsill line extending to the west to retain this lawn, and the garage door header to the east to shut off that alley. These horizontals describe the slope across the street, and suggest extending beyond the site.

Mie van der Rohe Brick Country House 1925
The great part about this drawing is those walls actually extended to the limits of the paper, who knows where/when they’d stop?
The desire for extension seems to come from the same instinct borne out of lookout, gaze, command; an instinctual desire to control the “field of view”-as much a protective response as one to dominate the surroundings.
I enjoyed the contrast in horizontal scale of “outdoor” vision as compared to the re-scaling of vertical indoors, the horizon line and its limitlessness vs. the gravitational measurements of verticals, a column, a tree. I love the inversion that happens enclosing open framing- once diminutive obstructions within a landscape now hold larger space once enclosed and occupied.

Over our regular labor day break camping in Catalina I enjoyed reading Stan Allen’s great collection of essays on Landform Building .
Here’s a great interview by someone a few years ahead of me at RISD, Nader Tehrani, interviewing Stan who also taught there briefly. And Stan Allen’s seminal essay on Field Operations.

View from Shore, Catalina

So about three months ago… these days we’ve been waiting on the road, and its permitting difficulties have blurred the ensuing months together- our friends called to say they’d gotten us a housewarming present. In fact, the following Monday 3 ginkgoes (for the three of us) would be planted by their gardener. What a terrific gift!

The One at the Bottom

Three in a Row

Leaves Up Close
Fun researching them further now they were real- they’d had an auspicious debut here as the tree to grace the plaza of Mies’ Seagram’s tower:

Clipping from New York Times; my own shot from the summer below while in NY seeing the great LC show

Unfortunately, our neighbors of the looming house didn’t seem to love them and immediately suggested we remove them and consult with them on what we would replace them with in response to a note I had written a beforehand to say they were going in. Oh well. Fortunately there aren’t any view ordinances to support the belief that one has purview over another neighbor in our part of town.
Just to be absolutely certain we were fine I did some research and came upon the curious Spite Fence:

Crocker Spite Fence (photo by Eadweard Muybridge 1890)
This guy was so frustrated with his inability to buy up the whole block he built a towering fence around the sole hold-out, pretty extreme. I guess if one plants in response to a neighbor, in an actual effort to spite them, then one can have a case against the planting. But if the owner is doing it for other reasons, like privacy, or thought of the idea before the others actually lived there then there’s nothing to it- so twice covered we won’t worry about it and hope they’ll like them at some point.
Perhaps part of their concern was looking at some erroneous info at how tall they’d get later. When I asked a gardener to diagnose an ailing leaf:

Ginkgo in Distress
He said that their grandchildren’s grandchildren probably wouldn’t see them 50′ tall. This leaf is in shock, but just form transplantation. He said this tree may very well do better than the others in years to come what’s it gets over the initial stage.
I’ve watched these ones planted near my office in South Pasadena over the last 7 years and I expect the ones we’ve planted will take ’til our son’s in college to occlude our view of their place.

Mission Street Ginkgoes

This lack of immediate satisfaction and growth, and though of being limited in our response for privacy took a few days to sink in and finally I realized, wait a second, why don’t we just build a fence in the meantime?

Fence (or me holding an 8′ 2×4 along our property line)
So I looked up in the code to verify our right to an 8′ tall fence on the side yard and then had my wife shoot pictures of me carrying that length 2×4 up and down the line. The thought of privacy, and the decisive diagonal which will create it got me excited. And, of course, immediately reminded me of Running Fence but it’s more gestural and may have more in common with a Serra in a field (and I like the idea of it not necessarily containing anything, as the view for now beyond the house isn’t so bad):

Christo and Jeanne-Claude Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76 Photo by Wolfgang Volz

Richard Serra Schunnemink Fork 1991 Storm King Mountainville, NY

All of this made me think of “good fences make good neighbors”:

He is all Pine, and I’m all Apple Orchard!

The road is finally done, and we are in the home stretch forming the site stairs:

Completed Road, with Asphalt Berm on Far Side
I’m a bit surprised how happy this seems to make a lot of the walkers who used to cross the old road. I tell anyone I can I’d rather have had the money fix the roads more cars travel on, the potholed roads up to school, and I mainly get silent smiles in return.

This last bit of concrete flatwork has brought Orville back with his great crew of Moises and Luis, and Luis’ oldest brother Florino who I’d never met before- he’s the senior man of the crew, with a hard hat in the upper right of the photo (their boss Orville has shades on). He and I both moved here in 1990, experiencing those consecutive years of flooding, fires, the riots, and a 6.9:

Luis Measures for the Landing

The Stairs Up
I like the way the diagonal relates to the roofline.

The View Downstairs
Leaving from our front door. That awkward jog will look better when the lines of the steps intervene.

Finally Pavement

On Thursday morning the trucks showed up to deposit many tons of asphalt on the crushed gravel base that had been tested and confirmed to be adequately compacted.
Here the guys are raking the line of the east end of the boundary, where the gooey stuff will end (from there they’d ramp down to the temp surface our absentee neighbor hastily installed which will eventually be removed and replaced with a similar time-consuming (and therefore long-lasting) composition:

Moments later their truck was coming around the bend:

Asphalt, Crew Truck, and Bulldozer just around the Bend

Eight hours later I left to my office and looked forward to seeing what they’d done after picking up our son at school.
Here’s what we saw:

Pavement at our House

Part of the benefit for everyone in us doing this is to clear the public way of years of overgrowth- our neighbor’s chain link fence had rubber plants on the street side. Thankfully the fence itself quite perfectly described the property line – so it remained, the trees were removed, and in addition to us giving 4′ of our own property to the city to widen the street we gained about 2′ in eliminating that shrubbery – so the 12′ of existing + 4′ from us and 2′ from them gives us 20′ total:

Walking the Line
This 20′ roadway is the paper standard for the hills, for secondary streets, a measurement one never seems to actually find in reality but a good little 50′ x 20′ court for us now.

So excited about the geometry of the ramped drive and the stairs which will soon go in, I tried to whip out a landscaping plan after celebrating the Red Sox pennant win and our anniversary.

Sketch Landscape with Driveway
This is from a finger painted sketch program on my iPad. I enjoy a lot of these digital tools not for aiming for verisimilitude but the way they instantly contain a lot of information. My sketch looks like electric beach grass – I suppose if that’s what we wanted we could image search it down, but really I’d prefer to plant low water natives as much as possible, and manzanita have been on my mind for a while from hiking so often amongst them, and their peeling cinnamon bark, such great contrast to their myriad greens.
I also like the idea of the necessary wedge of the driveway complementing the angularity of the facade – it’ll look more planar and wedge-like than my sloppy rendering does. Lastly I think another ginkgo tree (of which I’m writing another post) might do well to bracket our house and separate it from the neighbor.

Sunset Manzanita
I quickly came upon this sunset variety actually conceived to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the magazine.
I like the way this one spills over and softens the steps- we need to keep them concrete to ensure longevity. The angled landing obscures the entry, a a fenceless deterrent from the street. It also harks back to the end of Hinckley Lane, across from my grandparents where the beach grass (and similar to many beach accesses at the ends of dirt roads) hides the path, zigzagging beyond:

Springs Beach Top of the Bluff
I was unable to find the image captured on a cover of book of short stories by Julie Hecht, this is another photo just east of that cut in the bluff. We called it Springs Beach because of the water running down the middle of the exposed red clay face. It’s similar in composition to the wider cuts at Steps Beach, 1/2 mile down the road to the east:

Steps Beach (photo via Jayne on Weed Street)
Though Steps has a sort of exaggerated Jack Nicklaus golf course design topography to its entry – Springs was just a straight cut to the top edge of a high bluff. What both have is a mix of beach grass and rosa rugosa, the latter in its fortitude to salt air analogous to manzanita and the western climate.

Sunset Manzanita New Growth (images via Las Pilitas Nursery)
It’s tiresome hearing lamentations for the lack of seasonality here when in fact we have a delightful shift from mostly great though sometimes broiling to crisp and clear and changes in the vegetation to show for it. Of course we enjoy the endless summer, but also miss the bigger shifts in foliage- this one I’m excited about as it’s a sort of inverse, these copper reddish tones come with new growth.

Down the Road
I think the manzanita mounding may blend into the silhouette across the street.

Head On
I like the decisiveness of the black diagonal of the skewed and sloping roadway against the facade. The drive coming perpendicular to those doors will underline that angle.

Almost Pavement

After those guys were there, a couple of weeks ago, this steamroller was parked outside. It looked ready to roll, and then sat there for a week or two like an old tired heavy animal.

The work’s dragged on quite a bit. We first met in early August and by the time things were sorted out they were booked until Labor day. Since then it’s been a rolling promise of next weeks which remind me of the Free Beer Tomorrow Night sign I once saw as a kid from the back seat on our way to Key West. But yesterday the owner told me they’d gotten compaction okayed for the gravel base, and though they have Monday off they think they’ll pave Tuesday. We have the concrete of the driveway waiting in the bullpen. It looks like it might be a Dodgers-Red Sox World Series, so it’s not all bad. Hopefully we’ll be in by Thanksgiving.

I’m not sure what happened here- it seems from the photo they didn’t initially install the base throughout- when I called the inspector he told me they’d need to remove everything down to the sub-grade and get a test on that prior to any gravel install.
Before they could start the excavation for the gravel base, all told 12″ down from this gutter, they had to let the concrete cure for a few days. Between setup, inspection, concrete delivery, curing, re-inspection, excavation, testing, gravel, compaction, re-testing… things drag out. Two years ago city collected $13,500 in fees to check the plans and fund this inspection schedule- for our 20′ x 50′ street that’s 13.50 a square foot, the price of a decent wood floor. I estimate overall the work will cost at least 50,000 (or $50 a square foot) – it seems like there’d be a better use for these funds on busier routes within our community.

Height of the Gutter
Here you can see the depth of the road. I’m not sure exactly how the gravel base functions here- one would think that absent a freeze thaw cycle its drainage capacity would be less critical, but perhaps there’s enough hydrostatic pressure to cause something similar to a frost heave and an eventual pothole. There’ll be 6″ of asphalt on top of the 6″ of crushed gravel base.

Back on the Job
This was getting down the last of the base. They water while they go to keep it tight.

Some sounds from the field:

In the meantime Howard and Michael came back to install the gas line underground to link up with the meter at the property line. All of this meter spotting has to be coordinated with the authorities, in this case the service planner for the gas company- I sent him these pictures this afternoon:

Our rosemary continues to grow:

Rosemary Checkerboard Pattern

Rosemary in Morning Sun
Three weeks later. I can’t wait until it all merges and becomes a single “hedge”. I have in mind this hedge at the top of Cobble Hill Road in Nantucket, one that’s been maintained beautifully forever, although I’d swear it was rounder and more whale-like in its fullness when I was younger, but maybe it was just the roundness from the curving road:

Lincoln Circle Hedge (via afterhood)

and at last some Pavement:

Curbing our Enthusiasm

What a great sight to see yesterday the formwork removed, and at last, a curb:

Poured Curb
The S is avoiding the telephone pole in the foreground- if you look carefully within the straightway you’ll see the depression for the driveway, which will come parallel to the sides of the house straight out the full width of the garage openings.

Then this morning, this is what’s at the end of the road:

Dirt Truck
I don’t remember by looks whether this is 5 or 10 yards. I didn’t ask how many trips if more than one they made- it should be about 1000 CF/27…maybe 30-35 yards.

View of Model, photoshop collage
Here you can read the obtuse angle created from the skewing road and the head-on drive. This is the opposite of the knife edge to the side and makes turning in easier.
Our neighbors installed an un-inspected road surface in front of their own in the meantime. When offered to join them in the effort I suggested it wasn’t possible insurance, bond-wise etc., and I’m glad we were patient and pursued the work on our own based on what was done and will now need to be removed. There’s a thoroughness to the building in the public way process that however glassed it generally is give some assurance of consistency between our individual patches.



The Long and Winding Curb to our driveway

In mid-August we finally crossed the last “t”‘s and dotted the “i”s of our street improvements (AKA repaving the squirrelly patch in front of our house) in order to have our subcontractors come out and build that road. The spec developers on either side of us had previously abandoned this responsibility, and their unfinished business has complicated our matters greatly. Salting these wounds are the plethora of “I understand” comments coming from various officials along the way. After a while I’ve tried to reflect these back to them in the form of scenarios that would actually cost them significant money and consume all sorts of time and emotional resources, but ultimately am pretty dedicated to getting through it all and chalking it up to larger bureaucratic decisions far from our playing field.

Dedication in this context is pretty funny as it’s the title given to the form in which you donate your property back to the city. Our front 8′, or about 5% of our lot, has been reassigned to the city at no cost to them and $3317 to us (processing fees!). I pointed out the irony in receiving no thanks but a cost for this gift. Irony has its own time and place.

The work is thankfully underway and I’ll post more images as it’s completed. The mind races with the marking possibilities of various athletic/playground patterns on our new 50′ long by 20’ wide patch of blacktop, I’m thinking a college 3-point line may do the trick.

Textures and Finishes

Luis Fitting the Transom
These windows over doors were common in Nantucket houses to indicate if fire was in the room. I designed some “modern” version of these at a point but then realized the problem with light leak and lack of privacy from the hallway. In this case light from there’ll serve as an “occupied” sign. And I like the way the additional reflective plane will both superimpose a reflection in the distant window and give it another step of depth.

Transom in the Morning
The following day with light coming in. I’m excited to start marking the light in various spots. The corrugated siding outside will divide a shadow into minutes, even seconds. Inside at the stairwell the skylight and stair below will be another sundial.

Floor and Tub Wall
We’re using teakwood (a sandstone from India that looks like delicious halvah to me) on the floor and white mosaics on the tub “boxes”. The teakwood was chosen to be a good transition from the wood floor- there’s no door in our bathroom and I wanted that segue to be quiet. The smaller mosaics were chosen for the tub because it seemed there’d be some give in getting whole tiles surrounding the “inserted” tub basin- basically an even count of whole lengths and widths around the edge. Planning the tile like this is tricky, as the math never white works out, the mesh sags, gravity and the slightest variation get in the way. My sense to do white was to keep it all recessive and to have the tubs blend with the walls in which they are against, and then the common white between the tub and the tile bolsters a heavier reading, it seems more solid.

Rift Sawn White Oak and Teakwood
I placed a piece of our floor, newly delivered and seasoning in several rooms, adjacent to where closets will be built in our bathroom (I’m hoping for Hinoki cedar) to compare the color and grain. Obviously not a “match” but sympathetic enough. The rift sawn flooring is great, and the muted caramel of it feels fresh and clean while its grain immediately telegraphs to the mission rule furniture all through the arroyo.
Getting the grout right in the teakwood involved mixing a couple of sandless blends.

I wanted to see the flooring running down the hall from the stair. We originally were going to run it in this single direction upstairs but now I think we’ll switch it at the bend. I’m concerned with that extra angled cut on most boards squandering more than we have. With the tiles I’ve ordered close to my takeoffs and had almost nothing left, ignoring the industry standard practice of 10-15% extra. Of course if you’re spending much time at all piecing the scraps you’ve blown whatever economy you’ve gathered from your frugality.
I’m still not crazy about this juncture- I may eventually cap the rail to allow for the palm gliding which would eventually make this shabby. Or at some point demo everything solid and let more light get to downstairs- a pipe rail could negotiate this slippage between the hallway guardrail and the diagonal of the stairs.

Between Bedrooms to the Balcony
Starting to think about the frames and how to paint them out and also the doors. We were getting birch and thinking of playing it by ear- the temporary paint grade doors give a good sense of blending in for now. I think if these frames are kept quiet the view beyond collapses the depth. The corrugated is a great matte for the green beyond.

Balcony Railing
I’m very happy to have this white rail- high enough to feel completely contained, and regular and plain to not compete with the view.

Big Window and Deck
Our son and I washed the big window to get off all the adhesives that came with it. Well get this deck together this week, replacing the plywood we’d placed to receive the big window.