Dec 072018

One of the joys of home ownership is an ever-present task list. When we finished building our home ten years ago, I made a list of 50-odd things that required completion, most of which still await my attention. Some items have been added and resolved, like the failed foundation sump pump I spent two days replacing last month, or the tree that came down in September. However this is the happy story of knocking an old item off my list.

During construction, we purchased two large pieces of silk-and-wood-stamped artwork from our dear talented friend, Tomoko Murakami. Tomoko taught me how to make silk art more than 15 years ago, and you can see the pieces on her website, Yusaifu #7, Blue and Red. These 70”x80” translucent panels were perfect for the large walls of the house, so we designed light boxes into our central stairwell landings, sized exactly for them.

…Except that we were so out of money, we couldn’t finish the lighting and mounting. So I carefully hung them in front of the boxes, where they looked interesting — but not exactly stunning — without back light. I don’t think a single guest has commented on them over the years, which perhaps tells you just how important proper lighting is for visual artwork.

Meanwhile, lighting technology has progressed in good ways. Back then, it would have required maybe six hundred watts of Lutron-dimmable fluorescent lights, and the $3000 was just not in our budget. Now we can buy strips of warm efficient LED lights with electronic dimmable power supplies…and 300 watts of lighting at a cost of $700 is sufficient for the whole project.

So I did it. The house is transformed, the dimly-lit stairs are now bathed in gorgeous color, and the core of the house has a luminescence that carries throughout, into all the rooms and out onto the street at night. Tomoko, I bow to your creativity, and Nancy, I bow to your vision. I feel replete.

Although it’s not yet done. Now I must fabricate the frames that will finish off the pieces. One more item back on the list.

…and after!
24 volt transformer and LED strips behind the art panels
the view from the street


 House Building, Landscaping  Comments Off on sprung
Apr 282009

Records are falling everywhere, as an early heat wave arrived in mid-April. Wildflowers are rioting throughout the hills, our landscaping is blooming — it’s an instant springtime. And, we happened to pick these weekends to tile the upper deck. I can still feel the sunburn from a week ago.

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First, some colorful photos. These purple flowers are everywhere, along with California poppies. Bush or arroyo lupine, perhaps? Just gorgeous.

Ruth, a friend of ours on the Fairfax Open Space Committee, kindly gave us a baby oak from her yard. Since the big oak next to us is badly diseased, I planted it nearby, visible from the kitchen window you see in the background.

The landscaping is mostly taking off, with only a few plants failing and needing replacement. All four Western Redbud trees are doing great.

And then there is our tile project. After a somewhat shaky start (OK, I should have listened to you, Nancy!) we are moving quickly. I bought a nice used Rigid tile saw off of Craigslist, and we have most of the bluestone in. The picture at the top of the page gives you an idea of the scope of this project, as seen from the hillside behind the house. The saw is set up on the right, the hose, buckets, level, tools are scattered everywhere. A big drill and mixing paddle perch in a bucket near the railing, where we make thinset mortar and grout. The furniture and potted trees get moved around freely, so we can get the tiles down.


Here is a shot of our progress after the first weekend. It’s still blazingly hot at 6pm, when we called it quits. About a third of the deck got finished, and half of the skylight. You can see the tile saw on the left. Thank god for some shade!

Yesterday, we finished installing nearly all of the Italian blue glass tile that is going on the sides of the skylight. Even without the white grout (my project for tomorrow), it looks beautiful. I still need to cut bluestone to fit the spaces around the base.

On other fronts, I’m still looking for my next career position, sending resumes & cover letters, contacting old co-workers, updating my skills. I’ve had several encouraging interviews, but no offers yet.

Aug 162008

It’s been a whole month since we moved in, and for the most part, things have gone really well. Our labor of love, and 3 years of intention, have delivered us into a really lovely place. That still needs a lot of finishing work.


My “to-do” list is apparently endless, and I get something done each day. I’ve been sanding, priming and painting where subcontractors had to cut open the walls and fix things. Stocklin Iron came out and welded handrail extensions onto the spiral stair to meet code. I built trash and recycling pull-outs, and installed them into the kitchen island.

And today was trellis day. Our architect had drawn up plans for a really cool piece of iron work, to go over the front door. It’s been ready and waiting for us since July, and I finally got the time and cash to put it in.

Bob Hartwell was kind enough provide two of his guys, Mauricio and Miguel, to help. It took us 5 hours, start to finish. First we put 2×12 bracing in place, for the trellis to rest on during installation. As it turned out, we didn’t really need it, since the trellis was about 1/4” wider than the concrete opening, and had to be force fit into place! So we had about an hour of fun with various power tools, hammers, chisels and pry bars, chipping some concrete away and whanging on this massive piece of iron to get it to fit. Above, you see Mauricio drilling into the wall, preparing to epoxy 5/8” all-thread steel rod into place to hold the trellis. Another hour later, we have 8 pieces of rod solidly cemented into the wall, we’ve removed the wood bracing, and swept up the mess. It’s ready for bronze paint, our project this weekend.


I’m not the only one having fun with the task list, of course. Nancy tackled the landscaping as soon as we moved in, and the front is beginning to look much nicer, as you can see below. We’ll be working on the slopes and the landscaping shortly, to get the hillside stable before the rainy season starts in October.


It’s odd that my two main vehicles are almost the same shade of blue – Roy, the family Ford F150, and my 1979 BMW airhead, which I am finally riding again. I’ve always loved motorcycling, and one of the hardest things for me over the last two years was putting my bikes away, since I didn’t have a place for riding gear, let alone tools. Now I’ve got a garage, even though it’s full of clothes, hardware, lumber and paint 🙂

movin’ on over

 House Building, Nancy, Reflection  Comments Off on movin’ on over
Jul 062008

Apparently yesterday was a national holiday, but we hardly noticed. We’re moving! And setting up one room at a time. First, the living room and bathrooms.

We won’t have natural gas in the house for a few more days, since we could only get one utility service (electricity, of course) until we got our occupancy permit. So…no cooking, no hot water, no central heat. However, it’s summer, the house keeps the temperature pretty even, and everything else is working pretty well. We’re having a few friends over to help us celebrate tonight, so we’re setting up the basics for a party. This is where I just let Nancy do her thing…she has a way of creating a beautiful space.


This marble dining table has been at her father’s house in Novato for more than 10 years, used as a desk. She ordered the walnut chairs online about 2 years ago, and they went straight into storage. We bought the carpet in 2005 at a sale, but never got to use it. So everything is a surprise to us, like unwrapping Christmas presents.

Then there is the final kitchen, with the large shaded light fixture hanging over the island. I just finished putting maple stain on the sides of the island two days ago. The bar stools are also brand new, coming from more than a year in storage.


Master bathroom, showing the fixtures we’ve been installing all week. I now own a rotohammer drill and a set of bits for putting holes in tile and concrete. And I’ve had lots of practice using it.

The right photo is the 3rd floor powder room, with a combination fluorescent/halogen light fixture hanging over a very unusual mirror. The tiny sink is cute and functional (Nancy will probably hate that I say that 🙂 and in the mirror you can see some architectural drawings framed on the wall.

Lastly, here is the brand new (to us!) sectional, with the marble coffee table and another rug that has been in storage for years. I’m starting to love this place, the way it looks and feels.


“the eagle has landed”

 House Building  Comments Off on “the eagle has landed”
Jul 032008

Today we got the final signature on the job card, and received our occupancy permit.


I’ve got to take a minute and thank all the folks on the home page, especially Bob Hartwell, Rich Dowd, and Brent Harris, who have participated in the entire project. And of course, Nancy. We couldn’t have done it without each other.

Of course, the final process was tortuous. The building inspection went well, and we got that signature on Monday. The fire department wanted a signed contract with an arborist to come trim and remove trees to meet fire regulations, plus a change to the alarm system wiring. We got that signature Tuesday.

Then there is the planning department for Fairfax. It took 4 phone calls with our architect, 3 with our geotechnical engineer, a letter from me, a meeting with our geotech on site, a letter from the geotech, a letter from the architect, and 3 visits to town hall to get the final signature. To be fair, there were two outstanding issues — drainage and slope reconstruction — raised by the town engineer. However, I cannot understand why that would delay our occupancy of the house — especially since the issues are really ours, not the town’s.

Whatever. We’re in. We’re moving this weekend.

time compression

 House Building  Comments Off on time compression
Jun 302008

Faster and faster, the final fixtures are appearing and parts of the house are finished. The plumbers just finished a few days ago, electricians are coming back tomorrow morning to install the stairway lights, and Nancy and I and the tiling crew have worked feverishly to get the last punch-list items handled before our inspections tomorrow. I think we’re ready. It’s been another 14 hour day for us.


Today I fabricated and installed the rails on the stairs. The final 3-1/4” thick treads were installed this morning by Steve and Tom Tillson. Nancy and I spent the week staining and finishing them.

Everything meets code: the railing is 35” above the treads, with returns to the wall at the end. The gap between the treads is less than 4”, and the tread rise is 7-1/4”, and 11” deep with a 1” overhand. So many requirements for stairs!

Eduardo and Xavier worked ALL weekend to get the bluestone stairs done on the first floor. We had to remove some of the plywood, and shave the back of some of the stones to get the correct rise, run and overhang for the treads.


Our nephew, Andrew Jones, is priming the wall in the master bedroom closet. By the way, good quality primer is nasty stuff, and a mask and ventilation are a good idea. Then you can see the Crema Marfil stone shower with a waterfall shower head, and the drain tile floor. Very pretty.

Below are pics of the finished master bathroom. Note my paint-stained shirt…the faucets are all LaCava WaterBlade fixtures, very cool looking. The mirror over the sink has fluorescent lights built in on either side. The tub was a Major Find on craigslist, brand new acrylic soaking tub with a Japanese wood cradle, at a fraction of list price.


Tomorrow morning is the fire inspection, and the final town building inspection. We need several sign-offs for occupancy. Fingers crossed, it’s time to sleep. Tomorrow starts early. Again.

marathon mile 22

 House Building  Comments Off on marathon mile 22
Jun 202008

Our first inspection for an occupancy permit is Monday morning, and I’m sure we’ll have a punch list of items to finish. But I’m pulling all the stops to get everything possible complete. I’m working half-time at my job, mostly nights and early morning, then working full time at the job site all day. Today’s been a 15-hour day, and I’m going to do some work when I finish this page. That’s why so much has happened, but I haven’t been able to blog in well over a week.

In the last 3 days:

  • most finish electrical is done; 4 major fixtures still need installation.
  • half the finish plumbing is done, and I’ve had to repeatedly call both Peter Levi and his plumber to get their ass on the site. It should have been finished last Thursday. They’ve lost parts, and I’m spending hours each day trying to get them what they need.
  • final drywall punch list is done, all edges are straight, and all small problems are resolved.
  • 1st floor tiling is done, and nearly all 3rd floor tiling is done!
  • I’ve rebuilt a sink stand to fit into the ground floor powder room, installed mirrors, aligned light fixtures, morticed hidden hinges into doors, bought lights, switches, GFI sockets, decorator covers, occupancy sensors, motion sensors, more lights, waterproof socket covers, ordered more light fixtures, drilled and painted railing for cable rails, cut, drilled and stained cedar for even more rails, installed J-boxes, and prepared floor area for tile, epoxied metal reinforcement into the kitchen island for the counter, brought demand to folks to get them moving, bought lunch and drinks for crews, and made 9 hardware store visits, 3 plumbing outlet visits, taken delivery of appliances, hauled trash and cardboard to Marin Recycling, scheduled a Lutron Homeworks lighting programmer, and put in hours to create an initial mapping for the Lutron lighting system. Just 3 days. I think final exams at MIT were easier.

I’m too wiped to write more. Here are pics.


Front entrance, with Turkish Travertine tiling, and bluestone stepping stones in the landscaping.

Kitchen island, with the riverwash granite counter installed on the oh-so-cool Elkay sink, with a built-in drainboard.


Fireplace done, with more granite. The EcoSmart burner is the stainless steel square in the middle., and the back still has the protective plastic cover, with some writing on it.

Today’s accomplishment, the glass rail, waiting for the top cap and bronze cladding. This is also the top of the feature wall, with a framed light box on the right in the wall, to illuminate Tomoko Murakami’s artwork. Our pieces are the red Yusaifu #7, shown at and Yusaifu #8,

Now I have to go to work 🙂

permit race

 House Building  Comments Off on permit race
Jun 102008

We want to move in by the end of June. A ton of stuff has to happen, and I have 6 different subcontractors scheduled very tightly to get us to an occupancy permit. Plumbing and electrical subs have committed to finishing by the end of this week, but neither was on site today, and I’m concerned. We’ll see if they can do it…I can always add reviews at, where I’ve been pretty active this year. I should have added completion bonuses to the contracts!

The floor is going well, though we’re a couple days past the committed schedule. The slate is beautiful, the bathroom counter is getting installed tomorrow, kitchen counters soon after that. Nick Razo’s guys work hard…they were in the house all day Saturday, after a full week, and did a long day today also. The above picture speaks for itself.

The “feature wall”, a central wall in the stairway, is installed and ready for a finish coat. Just look at the pics. Nancy, Rich Dowd (our architect), and the Tillson brothers have done a Really Cool Thing.


Above is Tom Tillson in the garage, while the 1st floor portion is being built. Next is the view from the first landing, looking at the 2nd floor. To the left is the second floor view, with temporary scaffolding. This kind of feature is currently popular with architects for the exterior of a home, but it’s kind of novel for an interior.

(Nancy and Rich will probably hate me for saying this, but after we started designing it, we actually saw something similar at

Then there is my work with Tony over the last 3 days. We’ve put the first and most important landscaping elements into place, the bluestone pavers and planting area around the entrance to the house. Saturday, we formed and poured the concrete pads. Sunday we mortared the 3 bluestones in place on the pads, matching the ones in the driveway. Today I got a cubic yard of landscaping soil, and shoveled it into place around the stones.


Here is what it looked like early this morning, and late this afternoon. The really cool thing about this was how the soil showed up! I prepped the area for soil this morning, picked up doors from Mission Wood in San Rafael (for our crawl spaces and wine cellar 🙂 then went to American Soil products for a yard of topsoil. I ran into Alex Rockas, the subcontractor who framed our house last fall, and he has a yard of topsoil in his truck. He offers to let me borrow his truck (which has no camper shell) so I can get a yard of soil dropped into it. Then he goes to his project, and finds out they are not quite ready for the soil yet.

The universe is a wonderful place. Alex brought the yard out to our house, we shoveled it out (yes, I just moved another 900 lbs of stuff), and I gave him a tour of the house he framed when we were done. I saved some money, he made some money, and he got to see what he helped create. Perfection is all around us, if we can only receive it.

dr. weightloss

 House Building  Comments Off on dr. weightloss
Jun 032008

*…or how I learned to skip workouts, and love Aleve 🙂

Tile. Pretty heavy stuff. Over the last week, we’ve taken delivery of about 16,000 lbs of it, plus another 8800 lbs of bluestone for the exterior decks that arrived a while ago. We’ve also received 5 granite countertops that weight 340 lbs each, 32 bags of Thinset mortar for the tile, and about 16 bags of mortar for the shower walls. Since I’ve either moved it all in my truck, or helping to unload it from a delivery truck, I’ve been getting plenty of exercise. I’m down more than 5 lbs in just a couple of weeks. Why didn’t I think of this before? Much easier than going to the gym. Not!


Here is our 26,000-lb garage. 1850 square feet of Brazilian slate on the right, 5 granite counters and 8800 lbs of bluestone on the left. Oh, and 800 lbs of solid wood doors in the back. The mortar and most of the Thinset are stacked elsewhere. It doesn’t look like much, but each of those 150-odd brown cardboard packages weighs about 60 lbs. I’m glad the foundation is thick. Yes, that’s a toilet hanging out by the doors, ready for 2nd-floor installation.


And the slate is lovely, even without any grout yet. Eduardo is a skilled craftsman, and places the tiles with precision, 1/8” apart, tops aligned within a tiny fraction of a millimeter, as Nancy looks on. The second pic shows a few tiles in the bedroom, and the variation in color (along with a few dusty boot-prints 🙂 The entire 3rd floor should be done by the end of this week, when we will get the appliances installed in the kitchen.


In the mean time, we’ve painted almost all the rooms, the cedar siding is done on the outside, and we have to clean alkali stains off the garage door, from the stucco process. Finish electrical work starts today, and I’ve brought all the light fixtures. Next week the finish plumbing will start. In two weeks, we should have lights and a working kitchen and bathroom. We still plan to move in by the end of June. Cross your fingers.

kitchen make-over

 House Building  Comments Off on kitchen make-over
May 282008

Not long ago, it was just an empty room, with some nice windows. Over the Memorial Day weekend, we installed the kitchen cabinets, and have taken yet another a leap forward towards our move-in day.

It was a very full weekend, and I learned lots of tricks as we worked with Tony Mowers, placing each cabinet, getting it level and aligned with it’s neighbors, and screwing it into place. We did the bottom row first, using shims to get each unit aligned with it’s neighbors, starting in the corner and working our way out. Basically, we drew a level line on the wall, at the top of each row of cabinetry, with marks where studs in the wall were located. Then we fit the cabinet in place, with a large level on top, aligning the front edges, screwing the cabinet to it’s neighbor, then into the stud in the wall.


Here is what it takes to install cabinets, aside from another person to help 🙂

  • short and long levels
  • clamps and shims
  • 3” self-tapping flathead screws
  • 1” wood screws (not shown)
  • plastic mallet for tapping things into adjustment
  • stud finder
  • power drills and screwdrivers and chargers and batteries
  • pencils for marking walls

For the upper cabinets, add a piece of 2×4 lumber to mount on the wall, to help hold the cabinets in place while we fasten them. You can see it in use in the pic at the top of the page — we screwed several of the upper cabinets together to align the faces, then lifted the whole unit into place and added screws across the tops and bottoms of the cabinets into studs. Then we removed the 2×4, filled the screw holes, and mounted the doors. It’s a surprisingly quick process, when you know what you are doing and have the right kind of help. Thanks, Tony.


The finished product, ready for tile and appliances. The white object in the center is a stainless steel backsplash, with a Kobe vent hood over it, for the BlueStar range. The microwave fits under the counter on the right, dishwasher in the island on the left, and the refrigerator goes on the extreme right. These are getting delivered in about 10 days, after the tile is done.