In August, we got a rather unexpected notice from the Ross Valley Fire Department. They were coming to do fire mitigation up the hill behind our house. As it turns out, we are right on the town boundary with open space all around us, and the fire department got funding to reduce burnable material in the forests around the edge of Fairfax. This will make it easier to protect the town if a wildfire comes sweeping through our area. We were, of course, delighted — I’ve been pulling scotch broom up that hill ever since we finished the house in 2008, and it’s been a tough battle. Any help is appreciated!
Sure enough, tree crews and laborers showed up in September, and worked for a week to pull broom, limb trees, and make piles of burnable branches. They hauled truckload after truckload of material down the hill.
Yesterday was burn day, and several dozen firefighters arrived bright and early. They ran a 2-inch fire hose at the end of the street, extending about a quarter mile behind all our houses past about thirty burn piles. Near each pile, a T-connection added a smaller hose for controlling the burn.
And then it was time to light everything.
An hour later it’s all over, the piles are done smoldering and hoses are getting rolled up. The results are impressive. All this work pushed the edge of the big scotch broom plants further up the hill, making more of the forest visible. Tons of downed wood are gone, branches have been thinned out, and my fire suppression job each summer just got much easier. We’ve got some big charred spots on the hillside, which will go away over time. And the field across the street has pile after pile of chipped material, which is gradually getting spread all around the field. My hat is off to our fire department!
This is not a bush behind our house. And the odd appliance in the center is not harmless, it is a chainsaw.
Jen and I were recovering from Burning Man on Labor Day, resting our exhausted selves and doing laundry, when we heard a big crash behind the house. Looking out the upper window above the kitchen, we saw a lot of greenery that wasn’t there a moment ago. Much to our surprise, one of our coastal live oak trees came down. On a clear, sunny and calm day, no less.
We actually waited a couple of days to go up the hill and find out what happened. This 18” oak was growing out at an angle, leaning toward our house, and I guess it was just it’s time to come down. The miracle is, it missed the other oak on the right side of the photo, and was too short to hit the house. Our little wood lot has been quite stable for several years, with no loss of trees…however August and September (the end of the dry season), always seems to be the time if we lose one. This is the third tree to come down on our half-acre in 12 years.
Of course, this is a Power Tool Moment. I’ve spent two morning up there with my trusty Stihl chainsaw, reducing the massive stalk into a hundred pieces. We need hardwood to heat our cabin in Lassen, so this tree will not go to waste. I got my ration of exercise carrying logs down the hill and loading the Jeep. I now have a very personal relationship with this tree, knowing every inch of trunk, seeing all the new growth that is suddenly at an end, dragging the slash into a pile for future disposal. And my back has deep respect for the mass of even a moderate-sized tree like this 🙂
Looking closely at the broken stump just a couple of feet above the ground (on the right, in this pic), I realize this tree was diseased. The tell-tale signs of Sudden Oak Death are here, brittle crumbling brown bark, globules of dark sap oozing. This tree has been weakened. If it hadn’t snapped, then perhaps it would have died next August, finally succumbing to the stress of the fungus that has killed so many coastal live oak in Marin.
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.
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.
We hit a major milestone today. The last equipment and debris is gone from the front of our house!
For 2-1/2 years, there has been stuff in the street. First a fence, then a backhoe, piles of dirt, rocks, a porta-pottie, rebar, concrete, huge stacks of wood, trucks…when we moved into the house in July, we still had a pile of boulders for landscaping. Now that the landscaping is done, Manuel Fernandez & his crew hauled the last of the debris away yesterday, then came today to pick up their Bobcat. We’re just another house on the block now. Sort of.
Here is the view from my office on the second floor yesterday morning. The hillsides now have mulch on the ground, covering the drip irrigation and the jute netting on the steep parts.
You can see we still have the white Christmas lights up on the deck railing. The two trees look very spindly, but should take off nicely in the spring. The thing in the lower left is the gas meter, which will be hidden behind plants in a year or two (I hope!)
In the right pic, the Bobcat is loading the last of the debris pile into one of Manuel’s trucks. By the end of the day, all the dirt, the leftover pipes, and the stack of bluestone pieces were all gone, leaving my blue BMW motorcycle sticking out like an antique orphan.
I don’t often show photos from the north side because of all the junk in the street, but here’s one taken today, after everything was gone. The cones are left over from Brent Harris Construction, and they have served their purpose well. The street is all nice and clean. Finally.
That ugly black pipe sticking out of the north side of the house is one of the drains from the 3rd floor deck. It’s been redirected into the drain box behind the north retaining wall, but I’ll go up there and re-plumb & paint the pipe, along the side of the house, so it won’t be so visible. You can also see the fire alarm bell, just under the triangular window in the top left. And our neighbor’s spectacular old oak tree on the right, which I’m still spraying twice a year to fight its sudden oak death infection.
All tucked into the hillside. What a nice house. As the new year came in, Nancy and I reflected on all we got done in 2008, and committed to hike and meditate more (and pay off some bills!) in 2009. This blog will continue, as I move my mother into the neighborhood, and start to get more involved in the town General Plan Advisory Committee.
By the way, my company, Sun Micro, is about to do a really big layoff, 6000-7000 people. If I get hit, this journey could become a lot more interesting really quickly!
Dozens of details keep us busy, but nothing really newsworthy…until the last week. Now we are rebuilding the slope in front of our retaining walls, and a cheerful crew of landscapers are moving large rocks into position.
Our landscape architect recommended Manuel Fernandez of Novato, and he and his guys have been busily moving dirt around, digging ditches, and delivering rocks to join the pile we already had in front of the house. It’s like watching Aztecs build a pyramid — each rock is laboriously and carefully moved by hand, fitting snugly with it’s neighbors. They’ve got a small skip loader, but it’s often used to pull on a cable to drag a rock up the steep slope. They use chains, a come-along, pry bars and brute strength to create the retaining walls.
This sequence of photos will give you an idea of the effort required. First they dig trenches where each wall is located, then place rocks with concrete as a grout in the bottom. Some careful work with a sledge hammer levels off the top of the rock to form a flat surface for the next layer. Then more rocks are hauled up, each one sized and shaped to fit roughly together and interlock. Cement from the wheelbarrow is used to anchor it all together on the back side of the rocks, so the front looks more natural.
On this side of the house, they’re building two walls, with a planting area in between, where you see the bucket.
I’ve got to show you this pic, taken last week. This is the biggest boulder, and it’s being held in place by a cable and come-along anchored to a tree on the hillside, and a chain from the Bobcat. It took a couple of hours to get this sucker up the slope.
They should have the walls constructed on both sides by the end of this week. I’ll post more photos soon.
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 🙂
Ms. Linda Neal Senior Planner, Town of Fairfax 142 Bolinas Road, Fairfax, CA 94930
Re: Planning Application, A.P. 174-121-07
Dear Ms. Neal,
We’ve read your request for additional information on our project, in the letter to Rushton-Chartock Architects on May 5th. Thank you for all the information you’ve provided. We would like to explain why we believe this house design is the best for the property, in support of our application for a Hillside Residential Development permit.
We want to build [this house] because the location is surrounded by open, undeveloped land. We chose this architectural design because it fits so well into the environment, and embodies our own personal values.
Our goals for our house are:
– Attractive and sustainable, with set-backs, decks and large windows;
– Sensitively proportioned to avoid a “boxy” appearance;
– Energy-efficient, incorporating passive solar features and green building materials and technologies;
– Minimal impact on the land and the trees, keeping the construction area as small as possible;
– At least 3 bedrooms, for a couple, a guest, and a home office;
– Ground-level entry, and garage space for two cars; and
– Fully accessible for disabled and elderly people (We both have parents that may need in-home care in the future).
We understand that a prior house design for this property did not create enough off-street parking. So we expect that Fairfax has a requirement for as much off-street parking as possible, as well as compliance with the town building codes. Our house will be set back far enough to provide driveway space for two additional cars with the current driveway configuration, in addition to garage space for two cars.
We have some very specific ideas to make our house efficient, sustainable, and green. We expect to:
– Construct a house that is not overly large, approximately 2000 square feet of indoor living space;
– Take advantage of passive cooling, by allowing warm air in the house to flow by gravity directly up the center stairwell, and out through clearstory windows at the top of the house;
– Take advantage of earth insulation on three sides of the structure, to help keep the temperature of the house moderate in all seasons;
– Build with engineered wood products made from sustainably-harvested or recycled lumber, and insulate with recycled materials that do not use CFCs;
– Incorporate a 2-to-3 kilowatt photovoltaic power system for electricity, with a PG&E intertie so that we return power to the grid during the day;
– Utilize the most energy-efficient lighting and appliances we can afford;
– Provide windows that are double-pane, made with low-E glass;
– Install radiant floor heating, an instant-on hot water heater, and a building ventilation system that has a heat exchanger, but no air conditioning;
– Use paint and building materials with low volatile organic compounds (VOCs), or none, whenever possible; and
– Use bamboo or palm wood flooring, made from plants that grow very fast, saving hardwood trees;
This house design meets all of these goals better than any alternative we can conceive. It is compact, and inherently efficient. By building the house over the garage, with a ground-level entrance, we create access for disabled people, minimize the amount of land occupied by the house, and make a single structure that is easy to heat in the winter. Nestling the house into the earth will not only improve insulation, it will make the house nearly invisible from the surrounding open space, since only a few feet of the top of the house will peek up over the land surface. This design will connect the indoor and outdoor areas well, with several decks, a great view, and clearstory windows on the top floor that let you look through the house from the street. This design provides the most attractive solution to the erosion problem on the front face of the property, by avoiding visibly large retaining walls.
We can think of only a few alternative house designs, and all of them create more problems than they solve.
For example, we can build a street-level garage, and move the house itself up the hill to the more level area of the property. This will reduce the amount of excavation by somewhere between 10 and 33%. However, it eliminates disabled access, eliminates the energy efficiency of a single structure with earth on three sides, and requires us to use much more land surface, cut down more trees, and use more building materials. The house would not fit as well with the neighborhood, located up on top of the hill, and would be very visible from all of the hiking trails in the open space in three directions. The 30-foot retaining wall around the garage would be highly visible from the street, and very unattractive.
If we try to build the house and the garage up on top of the hill, with a steep driveway and retaining walls across the front slope of the property, we will have to excavate at least as much land as our current design, and we will destroy much more land surface and more trees than any other alternative.
If we use our current design, but move the entrance up to the second floor to make the first floor as small as possible, we will reduce the amount of excavation by approximately 2%, but lose access for disabled people. We will lose direct access between the garage and the house. We will lose much of the passive cooling advantage provided by a central stairwell going all the way through the house. It will also cost us a lot of money to completely redesign the first and second floors, for a less desirable configuration. And lastly, the result will not look as attractive as our current design.
We look forward to creating a home with all the qualities we’ve listed, and we look forward to living in Fairfax. We understand that the town planning council is considering ordinances that encourage green/sustainable building, and we are happy to be a proving ground for as many of these ideas as possible.