Finishing Touches: INSIDE

September 27, 2021: A few years ago I clipped a quote from Dwell magazine that helped me better understand what I was thinking about with Poem Homes. Founder Lara Deam put forward that “modern” isn’t a style.

“Modern is a way of communicating with our culture and attempting to make our dreams—big and small—come true. While I love a flat roof as much as the next person, modern isn’t just about design details. Nor is it necessarily a way to live with less or build more cheaply—although both are worthy goals. Modernism is an exploration of authenticity, materials, and function; it involves problem solving, testing different ideas, and expressing a little idiosyncrasy. Most important, it’s about work that responds to the time in which we live.”

Lara Deam, founder of Dwell

I’ll add to that: Modernism is about building a community of makers—traditional tradespeople and freelance craftspeople who come together to test their skills and try something new.

I no longer notice it, but my visitors do: the house is infused with the scent of fresh wood. The loft was built from a towering white pine that was felled just a few blocks away. My friend Jim Birkemeier of Spring Green Timber Growers cut and milled the wood, set it to dry in his solar kilns, and rough sawed it into the 2×6 joists and 2×8 ledgers I needed for this project. I left it raw and unfinished: random smudges and strap marks still show. A big thank you to Bob Rowen of Rowen Electric for masterminding the build.

Leftovers were used for the kitchen’s floating shelves. My finish carpenter and friend Eric Wallner of WALLNER DESIGN-BUILD and I brainstormed the idea of hooking the ends around the drywall window jambs and setting one shelf high and one shelf low.

Window sills are extra-thick planks of rough-sawn cedar (ordered from the lumberyard). They visually extend to the exterior sill that acts as a drip cap above the course of lower lap siding. Ditto for the door jambs—a visual trick that channels Frank Lloyd Wright who famously set panes of glass into grooves cut into stone to “dissolve” the barrier between indoors and out. I was adamant about keeping the texture, but Eric wisely counseled that a light skip-sanding would take down the splinters. A damp cloth run over the surface is all that’s needed to wipe away dust.

The rustic nature of the loft and cedar trims contrast with shinier finishes and materials worked smooth by the human hand. The windows are wrapped in drywall, which slots into an integral black plastic channel (called a sheetrock return) for a look that’s clean and shadow-free—and much cheaper than the more conventional wood frame.

Interior doors are off-the-shelf birch veneer single panel prehungs from made-in-America Koch Doors. The engineered wood cores are “CARB phase II compliant” for reduced formaldehyde emissions and the finish is low VOC. The jambs, casing, and adjacent baseboard are finger-jointed poplar, primed in the factory and finished on site with non-toxic, zero-VOC Ecos Paint in the same white as the walls (but one step up in sheen). I like how the casing and baseboard blend into the walls and allow the doors and their black hinges to pop. I’m grateful to Eric for his sure hand and keen eye—each reveal is perfect.

Eric also built the ladder, the refrigerator panel, and the loft window seat. I fiddled around on SketchUp until I got a design I liked.

Eric refined the details (some of which are best felt, not seen) and rightly insisted on an inset skid strip at the front edge of each tread. The ladder is made from stock 2×6 Doug Fir and the handles are from Bold Manufacturing and Supply.

A pet peeve (designers relish pet peeves) are bulky refrigerators. With my budget, I couldn’t consider a cabinet-depth refrigerator or even an attractive one that could stand on its own merits. Instead, I asked Eric for a plywood wrap that would complement the unit he built for the entryway. He devised this attractive and smooth-as-silk built-in in a way that can be minimally altered should the refrigerator be replaced with a larger one. He used 3/4” thick 11 ply formaldehyde-free Purebond birch plywood, tweaking the design and edge-gluing where needed to minimize waste. A not-to-be-underestimated advantage of a refrigerator panel is that it eliminates a crumb gap.

Throughout the build, I stacked siding cut-offs and 2x scraps in the garage and it was to this pile that I directed Eric when it came time to build the 27 foot long window seat along the back side of the loft (He did have to pick up a few sheets of plywood). His design is simple and elegant. The seat floats above the mechanical chase and juts back at the ends to create tabletops. Custom cushions were too pricey, so after some online searching I found narrow futons (sold as RV mattresses) with a non-toxic mix of cotton and poly fibers, wrapped in a zippered cotton canvas. What was a walk-through space is now transformed into a place to read and lounge and gaze down at the garden.

A small home like mine can live bigger with a few sleight of hands. My good friend Megan Fields of Rivendell Design Works sewed a curtain that when drawn back—voila!—reveals the washer. What was a small passageway between bedroom and bath becomes a generous working area for laundry sorting. Thank you Megan for finding just the right shade of blue!

Dining in semi-darkness began to seem normal, even inevitable. I couldn’t find a light fixture I liked or could afford. In stepped dear friend Cait Boldt who scoured resale shops for just the right piece at just the right price. The texture, color, and vibe go with the other objets d’art that came with me from my old house. Cait also found several new paintings and photos for my collection.

I like to think that my house is, like Lara Deam says, authentic and a little idiosyncratic. It’s a home that reflects me and my problem-solving and color-chosing and proportion-deciding friends. I’m deeply grateful.

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