Although Andrew is not currently a member of LJ’s [just introduced him not long ago], I thought you might appreciate this entry. I know you all enjoyed Todd’s interview cause he’s a a big part of LJ’s and he’s an interesting and sharing guy. I hope you will find this blog entry just as interesting.
Several years ago, Christen and I purchased a small, hill-side plot of land in the Goldstream Valley of Fairbanks, Alaska. Near the time we decided to begin clearing some trees, I thought it may be a good idea to get in touch with the owner of the neighboring lot, since it appeared that they were beginning to clear also. I contacted the title agency and asked them to ask him to call me. By the next day, Andrew Johnson called and we had a great initial discussion about all the optimistic plans involved with our lots.
I learned that he was a professional photographer working for Patrick Endres at Alaska Photographics. (It’s VERY difficult for me to not go into more detail about the unreal, pro photo work of these two…I kid you not, their work is truly awesome in every sense of the word).
After more conversation, he mentioned that he and and his girlfriend Marcy were going to build their home. That really grabbed my interest quickly and, fortunately, they also decided to document the entire experience. The story that ensues is best read on what has to be one of the greatest examples of an outstanding, text-book blog effort documenting the entire build. Their story is epic on a local and personal level. The series begins in Feb ‘07 and covers the majority of the entire build through ‘09 (read from bottom to top of each page – at the bottom is a link “Newer Posts” to continue). I encourage you to get comfortable and prepare to enjoy what may be the most interesting blog story ever published from Fairbanks, Alaska.
Roland has his own home too; although he didn’t build it.
Ever since that first phone call, we all became good friends sharing all kinds of doggy adventures (Roland and Echo provide endless fun and challenges), holidays, meals, outings and get-togethers. Andrew is one those guys achieving impressive feats armed with what seems like little more than a can-do attitude. At the same time, it makes people realize that anything is possible and I am glad he took time to talk with us recently for this interview.
BHW: To begin with, what all was involved in the home building decision for you and Marcy?
In the beginning…
Andrew: When we decided it was time to stop renting, take the plunge, and buy a home, we started looking at what was available in Fairbanks in our price range. This turned out to be somewhat depressing. The houses were either very tiny, old, inefficient, low quality, or way out of town. It was pick two (at best): quality, location, larger than 800 square feet, newer. It didn’t take long to occur to me that we could probably do better ourselves, so we began the process of determining if that was feasible.
Andrew: Very minimal! I had helped do a few small projects, including a shop with my dad, but I really wasn’t much more than a helper. I knew I enjoyed working with wood and tools, there’s a certain knack for that kind of thing that not everybody has. I’ve built fish tank stands, bed frames, even a weight bench out of wood – all simple, not furniture grade projects, but it was enough. I’m a very hands-on person, and I do well with physical things, and figuring out solutions. I have an analytical mind and enjoy designing and engineering things.
BHW: Your organization and planning approach was obviously effective. What percentage did research (internet, books, manuals etc), consulting (friends, family or experts) and other methods impact the overall project? (and why).
Andrew: Research: 70%. This was a huge element in the project. I simply didn’t know where to start, how things are normally done, how to make it safe, etc. Research and planning began approximately a year before groundbreaking, and continued throughout the process. Nighttime reading was always some textbook sized construction book. One of my favorite books at the time was “Do-it-yourself housebuilding,” which I no longer hold in such high regard because a few things are a bit dated or don’t apply to Alaska. However, it is appealing because it includes just about everything in one book – from site planning to foundations, framing, siding, mechanical, finishing, and includes many techniques and materials options. I think I read that book cover-to cover three times, which is probably about as much reading as I did in high school and college combined. More specific books proved very helpful as well. The “for pros by pros” series, including “Frame Construction” have clear diagrams of all the scenarios you might encounter.
The internet is also a huge help, but you have to be careful. There’s so much amateur stuff out there it’s hard to tell if you’re getting good advice or not. YouTube is an amazing new tool for learning techniques when you can’t be trained in person.
Taking Shape – Framing Fun
Consulting: 20%. I had the good fortune of already knowing some experts. One is a contractor who builds luxury homes, which I have photographed for him. He gave me all sorts of advice, and eagerly answered numerous questions without hesitation. He also directed me to subcontractors for certain elements I didn’t do myself (primarily drywall in the house). I also openly posted much of the design process on my blog, and asked for opinions of friends and family. This is how I chose things like the window layout on the main view wall. Something I didn’t listen to, and wish I had, was two independent comments about the bathrooms seeming a little small. It’s really worth listening to advice whenever you get it.
Other Methods: 10%. Some of the planning was out of my control. Sometimes I was slave to things like material availability, budget, the free help from friends and family I relied on, and in general my general lack of knowing what I was doing!
BHW: Building in such a peculiar environment in the hills of the Tanana Valley of Alaska, did you find the exterior or interior build more challenging? Which was more enjoyable for you personally?
Andrew: The exterior was the most challenging, all the way back to the site layout and planning, which was probably the biggest challenge of all. With a flat lot you can approach the house site however you want. On a sloped lot you are very limited and it’s a trade-off between steep driveway and placing the house right next to the road. Also the design comes into play. Making any flat area on a hill creates steeper slopes or vertical cut banks, so a narrow design is easier to place on the hill. The exterior was also quite frustrating, as I was learning framing techniques on a tall, steep house without a simple roof-line. It was also a rainy summer. It was a good day when it was finally dried-in and work began inside. For inside work, I was more in control, it was less physically demanding and dangerous, and it involved some of the finer details that I enjoy so much.
BHW: I remember hearing examples of the lighter side of this build, including bonfires and cement trucks. Can you share some of the funnier details and other stories maybe?
Andrew: You mean when I almost had the forest fire crew out to my place? That was just a mis-communication. I was calling on my burn permit to let them know I was going to start a bonfire, but through a bad cell connection they thought I was reporting a forest fire. I couldn’t figure out why they kept asking if there were vehicles or structures nearby, I was thinking, “What kind of idiot do you think I am?” until I figured it out. That did turn into a spectacular bonfire. Brush from a 200 foot driveway and house site makes a good sized pile! I clearly remember the day we essentially finished clearing. It had been a very cold March, something like -30 on March 30th. Then we finished on March 31st, and it was at least 30 above and sunny, perfect for working hard with a t-shirt. We had a huge bonfire that day with beer and pizza for all the friends who had helped.
Then there’s concrete. It seems I don’t have much luck with concrete. I generally have a knack for being able to see something done just once and doing it myself, but this doesn’t always work. I’ve watched several slabs go in, and I took note of how the rebar or remesh is pulled up after the pour to suspend centrally within the concrete. I thought this would work for my footings, but boy was that a mistake! The combination of a stronger, less-plastic footing mix with the much thicker concrete depth and bigger, ridgid tied together rebar grids made this impossible. Upon discovering this, we had to shovel out thousands of pounds of concrete on the 6 affected footings into a wheelbarrow, reach in by hand (I didn’t have rubber gloves, I didn’t know they were a good idea) and pull up the rebar. All this in about 15 minutes, or the concrete would be set up too much. By some unbelievable stroke of luck, my team of 4 turned into 8 as some extra friends stopped by at random. We were just able to get it all done, and we all ended up with raw hands and sore backs. Not a motivational start to such a large project!
It all worked out in the end for the house, but my next concrete project didn’t go any better. The next year we built the detached garage. Having had enough with concrete, I hired out the slab foundation, thinking I could sit back and relax. Pretty much everything went wrong. It started with the cement truck driving off the edge of my driveway and nearly tipping over. The delay pushed the pour into some afternoon rain, which is bad news for the surface of a slab. I ended up with a pretty lousy finish, and then to make matters worse, the contractor made it out of square by 3.5 inches! It was so bad I had to shorten the garage.
BHW: (still laughing about fun with concrete! Ok…on to the more successful stuff) Your finish work had very nice results with a great balance of subtle, contemporary applications and accents; quality craftsmanship is clearly evident. Did you find it challenging to keep it simple rather than complex and overly difficult?
Andrew: The most challenging thing was choosing styles and materials. If I could do it again, I might have kept it a little more simple in this area, especially by using fewer species of wood. As far as craftsmanship goes, I would have gone the other way and done additional custom work.
BHW: For the craftsman side, when putting final touches throughout the home, what new skills did you most enjoy learning from the experience? Do you already have ideas of remodeling certain aspects?
Andrew: I enjoyed everything about this project, but finish work was certainly the most pleasing and rewarding. I came into this project knowing virtually nothing about wood, joinery, finishes, etc. I had a great time learning about these elements and putting them into use. I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but that’s why I have more projects planned.
We were in a huge time crunch at some points in the project due to financing, and just the desire to be done. I didn’t get to spend nearly as much time as I would have liked on some elements. There are a lot of things I’d like to change or add already. For example, it was quick to just buy some pre-made MDF baseboard trim, paint it and slap it up. However, I’d be much happier with a custom wood trim, or even tile for base trim in the tiled areas. Another thing is the wood stove. We kept the overall feel of the house simple, and with the wood stove we just installed it directly on the tile floor. However, this summer I would like to make a hearth and mantel, complete with firewood storage and a pass-through door to the outside for stocking firewood without walking through the house. Then there’s the entry closet and the pantry Some custom shelving or cabinetry would be nice. I could go on and on. Thankfully, Marcy keeps me in check when I get too carried away.
BHW: A project this size has to be daunting and frustrating, even if it’s part of a lifetime achievement. What are a few critical tips that would you recommend to others considering the same massive endeavor?
Andrew: Planning and education is key! You can learn as you go, but there are so many tricks and helpful techniques that can make it so much easier. If possible, get some experience by helping friends with a similar projects. Also, give yourself enough time, but keep a solid schedule. Rushing a project is bad, but I’ve also seen too many that went on forever because they were working out of pocket, or just became too comfortable in an unfinished home.
BHW: When you’re not busy with the home, you‘re also a professional photographer. You effectively captured so many steps during the project. On a smaller scale, many of us woodworkers depend on photographs to showcase our work also. What advice and/or approach can you recommend concerning product photography?
Andrew: First and foremost, take the time to do it! It can be very hard to stop what you’re doing to take a photo. I didn’t take nearly enough photos of the process, and I regret that somewhat now. Regarding the actual process, it’s like most things. It takes time and dedication. The internet is full of photography teaching resources, and if possible, find someone with experience to give you hands on help. Here are a few basic pointers for product photography: 1: Keep the background simple and non-distracting. 2: Use a tripod. 3: Don’t use flash.
How cool is that?!
BHW: Above all, you have a beautiful home with lifelong memories. Did the experience exceed your expectations or was there more frustration than not?
Andrew: I don’t know if it’s just me, but I tend to look back with fond memories of experiences I know were very stressful at the time. I do recall very frustrating moments, but the end result was absolutely worth it. I definitely feel that if I could have slowed down some, I would have enjoyed the process even more and reduced a lot of that stress. It was the first time I embarked on such a large project, but certainly not the last.
Although this is the end of the interview, I am confident you would enjoy the related site that tells the full story of this adventure. Hopefully it reminds you of some of your own adventures and dreams. If so, please feel free to share with us your proudest moments or comments in general.
Thanks for reading
Your Arctic Woodworking Friend,
-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) || http://www.birchhillwoodcrafts.com