Architect Ryan Bushey, one of my co-owners and co-manager of our design department, recently designed and built a house for he and his family in Oak Bluffs.   Building a house shouldn’t be much of a trick for a talented and experienced architect like Ryan, right?

Hmm.  Let’s see.  Last week Ryan shared with us, at a company meeting, “Ten Lessons I Learned Building My House”.  Here you go:

“A little background:  In August, three weeks after our daughter Ruari was born, we moved into a brand new house.  A South Mountain crew helped me build a weather-tight shell; after that it was up to me.

So…when I first thought about building a house, I imagined a beautiful day, Guns ‘n Roses crankin’ on the radio, banging nails with a bunch of buddies, and then drinking a couple beers.  Hell yeah, right?  Well, in a year and a half there was one day like that, the framing party.  (It was awesome.)

A few lessons learned…

Lesson #1:  Don’t choose your baby’s due date as your deadline.  And don’t choose a one year old as your assistant foreman.

Lesson #2:  Building a house is WORK.  Mostly mundane, mildly uncomfortable, dirty, repetitive work.  Cleaning the shop vac filter (check the wind direction first), moving ladders, wrapping up cords, picking up scraps, pulling out splinters, and sanding—holy shit sanding.  It’s all very rewarding, but if I ever have to sand another muntin bar I’m going to lose my mind.  Our painters are superheroes.

Lesson #3:  The fact that we’re organized enough to build a house is a miracle.  We focus a lot in ProdComs and other Coms on better communication, but seeing this thing go from start to finish made me really appreciate how much work this takes and how many things can go wrong.  Think about one floor joist.  It has to be sketched, drafted, sized structurally, re-drawn, accounted for in a takeoff, ordered on time, shipped on time, cut, (cut again in my case), installed (but not too close to the rim joist), protected from plumbers, inspected by the building official, approved by the bank, then paid for.  One floor joist.

Lesson #4:  You’ve got to have your act together.  It took me way too long to appreciate the time you save with a clean, organized job and trailer.  And, just because your tool belt has a bunch of pouches, doesn’t mean you have to fill them all with heavy tools.  But more importantly, you’ve also got to keep the tools you really need in your pouch.  About the third time I got up a ladder and realized I left my tape back at the saw, I told myself “Self, you will do 10 pushups whenever you misplace a tool”.  (I had a lot of conversations with myself.)  Total count of pushups: 570.  I’ll show off the pecs another time.  I wish I could say that by the end of the job my hammer and my tape became “part of me”, but I did 10 more pushups last night installing my wood stove.

Lesson #5:  Pay attention.  I have an L-shaped staircase.  I rebuilt the landing four times.  And I had it right the second time.  Measure twice, cut once is kind of BS—I’d still be framing if I did that.  Just pay attention.  And try not to swear at yourself too much.  There are plenty of subs doing that for you already.

Lesson #6:  There is magic in the technique.  I have a pretty good handle on how to draw a house.  But you can look at a drawing and build it a thousand different ways. I know because I’d ask three foreman’s advice, and get three “right” ways to do it.  The lesson is: hacks can get it done, but great carpenters use the best tool for the job in the best way.

Lesson #7:  The lines on my drawings are straight, but wood is most definitely not.  Wood is a two year old boy.  You love it, but sometimes it’s wicked twisted.  You can read books about the best way to raise it.  You try can try to bend it against its will, but it will resist you.  You can gently whack it, but then you’d feel bad and you’d have to fix it.  In the end, it’s gonna do what it wants to do, so all you can do is size it up, shape it as best you can, set it on a good foundation, then move on to the next one.

Lesson #8: Your schedule is only as good as someone’s word.  When you’re building a house, you are depending on everyone to do what they say they’ll do.  Your word means a lot.  I had the great fortune to work with our usual SMC subs because on the rare occasion that I didn’t, it all went to hell—just look at the tile job in my shower.

Lesson #9:  I couldn’t do it without help.  Not even close.  Sure it’s hard to put up a long piece of trim or lug heavy stuff around without help, but you can do it.  Clamps and tricks and time account for those.  But there are two kinds of help that I didn’t fully appreciate.  The first was Expertise.  I had no idea how little I knew.  I was so lucky to have all of you to answer my questions.  And the second was Moral Support.  Thanks to my wife and my trusty headlamp I averaged about 45 hours a week on the house after work and on weekends.  But because I was doing so many pushups, I was always behind schedule.  So when one of you would come over on a Saturday to give me a hand, that was such a huge boost.  Special thanks to Billy, Jim, and Rocco for all their time.  To the crew that built the shell.  To everyone at the framing party.  To Brice, who spent so much time at our house that for months Finnegan would yell “Bweeeece” down into the basement.  To Matt the baseboard master, to Newell, Marc, and JG, my decking installers, bit breakers, and nail benders. I also owe a lot to Evandro , who humped sheetrock for Jay Gale full time then worked late nights with me for two months.  I couldn’t have done it without all of you.  Now I look around my house and see the hands of the people who helped me everywhere and that’s pretty amazing stuff.

And finally, Lesson #10:  Time is precious.  I went into this project worried about how I’d stretch the money.  But when I was missing moments in Finn’s life or someone was spending time away from his family to help me out, I realized that it’s not about how you spend the money—it’s about how you spend the time.   Every second counts.”




After a year of design, we’ve just begun construction of a sweet project for a great family on an extraordinary property at Seven Gates Farm.  It’s the third project we have done, on different pieces of this remarkable this part of the Vineyard.  The first was in 1995, the second in 2004, and now this one.

In the 1890’s a Harvard geologist named Nathaniel Shaler created Seven Gates,  placing 1700 acres of diverse north shore property (that he had purchased piece by piece over time) into a permanent trust that provided for just 40 homesites and no private land ownership.  Those who have built homes there lease the land from the Seven Gates Farm Corporation.

In Shaler’s times Seven Gates was a long carriage ride from Vineyard Haven.  The land had little value.  Thinking it would be desirable someday, however, he made provisions to preserve its future.

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In 1980 a woman named Madeline Blakeley asked me to look at a piece of land with her.  She was a librarian in her early sixties whose husband had recently died.  They had no children and had always lived in rented apartments.  Her dream was to own a piece of property.

She had $7,000 in cash. A realtor showed her a lot priced at exactly that, but her friends advised her against buying it.  The lot fell steeply south to a sweet little valley, a perfectly matched solar exposure and view, but it was right beside the main road from Vineyard Haven to Edgartown, which was very loud. Except for that proximity and the fact that the whole lot was a hillside, it was lovely.  There was nothing else on Martha’s Vineyard even close to her price range.

I suggested that we could cut and fill and build an earth-bermed, partially underground house.   “The southern orientation aims away from the road just enough, and the berming would dull the noise as long as the house doesn’t open to that side.  We can design the traffic right out of this scene!”  She was excited. Even though she didn’t imagine she could afford to build anything at all, the idea that the land could eventually be sensibly used was appealing.  I didn’t tell her that we didn’t – at the time – actually know how to properly build an earth-integrated house.

She bought the property.

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Apparently my last blog post touched a nerve – I have been swamped with wonderfully soulful e-mails from a wide variety of people and places.  I can’t really post the responses – many are quite personal – but I will say this: there’s a whole lotta heart out there.  But we knew that, didn’t we?

My Dad died peacefully, painlessly, surrounded by family.  He charted his own course.  Many do not have this opportunity.

Not long ago, I read Atul Gawande’s extraordinary book Being Mortal  (don’t miss this one), and more recently Diane Rehm’s book On My Own.  Rehms, who plans to retire from her NPR show after November’s election (and maybe head for Canada with the rest of us if the unthinkable happens!) lost her husband to Parkinson’s disease.

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