Between March and September 2021 we more than doubled the size of our house here in Contra Costa County, going from 1,500 square feet to just over 3,900. It took more than a year to go from our first drawings to the finished product, with permits and construction each taking about six months.
In my telling, it all started with the walls.
“I wish we could get new walls,” my wife said.
And she went on to say how new walls would make our old house feel new. That despite numerous small and large home projects, including two coats of paint when we first bought it, the old house still felt and looked old.
“Well, if we do the walls, we might as well do the floors,” I replied.
And I went on to say how much I despise having to tiptoe around the squeaky spots in the small hallway between our room and the girls’ rooms when we wake up in the morning. Step in the wrong spot and POP! The doors would open and out would jump our little princesses, dispelling our plans for a quiet early morning.
At some point doing the floors became moving some walls around, because we’d have to get all the furniture out of the house anyway. And if we’re moving walls then we should just do a little addition too, get the master suite we always wanted. And if we’re adding on there, let’s just expand the kitchen into the garage, and that would mean adding a new garage. And if we’re doing all that, then we should get the guest room and bath we need so family won’t have to stay at hotels when they come visit.
In product development, we call this scope creep. It’s the domino effect, the snowball rolling downhill, gathering mass, collecting ideas, until you’ve knocked down every wall and are basically building a brand new house from scratch.
That’s exactly what happened here. We scope-creep-snowballed our way into a complete rebuild of our old house… And I couldn’t be happier that we did it.
I called Jill sometime in May 2020 on a recommendation from our neighbors down the street. She did their remodel and they gave a roaring endorsement. They suggested, when the time came, that we go with their general contractor too. I’ll come back to that later.
I dialed her number and Jill picked up right away. She sounded pleasant and said she would be happy to meet. Although she lived out in the Sierra Nevada foothills, she was in our area frequently to visit family.
I remember that she arrived at our first meeting with a small ruler, a pencil, and some sheets of drafting paper. She brainstormed with her hands and I sat mesmerized. We talked through some ideas and she said she would get back to us with some more thorough sketches, but before she could do that, she needed to take some exact measurements of our house.
We never bothered to interview anyone else. I wanted Jill to figure this out for us. These are some of the first sketches of the downstairs addition layout after our meetings in late June 2020.
We received this clean set of drawings just a couple of weeks later. The left is the downstairs and the right is the upstairs. With tiny modifications, this would be the final layout of our new house.
Later, she modified the drawings to show which walls are new (dark filled) and which are existing (no fill).
This was my first foray into architecture and it continued to amaze and surprise me because my mind doesn’t work like this. I’m artistic with sound but not with shapes. Witnessing the work of a professional, an artist, really, was very satisfying. Jill seemed to be able to picture our house and walk through it in her mind.
The placement of the laundry room, for example, was her idea. She put it in the middle of the house, close to the girls’ rooms, knowing that’s where it would be most useful. She encouraged the extra wide hallway in front of the new master suite. The position of the pantry and powder room was also her vision. I couldn’t see it. And the layout of the kitchen was influenced by both my wife and Jill, as I recall, since there was a lot of discussion around those specifics.
As with nearly everything home-related before and after this big project, I mostly just listened.
Finally, we settled on the completed plans. I loved seeing these elevation drawings, which Jill also drew by hand.
The final, complete plans included a site survey, electrical drawings, engineering drawings, Title 24 (energy efficiency stuff), and roof drawings. It looked very impressive.
I still can’t believe Jill drew this. It looks like a computer drawing. It’s unbelievable.
So there it is. The final final. Jill dropped off our completed plans at the county sanitary department for initial approval on September 14. They approved on September 24 and we were off to the building department to begin their much, much longer process.
The journey had begun! Started on May 20 and ended almost exactly four months later. And now we needed a contractor.
I didn’t know this when we started, but drawing the plans for the house and building the house itself are two very separate disciplines.
Builders (aka “contractors”) like to work from designs. They don’t like to make decisions. Designers (aka “architects”) like to start from scratch, the blank pieces of paper that Jill brought to our living room, and figure everything out.
Designers make plans. Contractors use plans. The better your plans, the faster and easier the process. Good contractors know this, so they want as many decisions made for them up front as possible:
- What kind of siding do you want?
- Where are you going to order your windows from?
- What kind of doors?
- What type of roof?
- Floors, cabinets, vanities, tiles, trims, paints, pulls, handles… everything?
When it comes to working with a contractor, there is no, “Gee, what do you think?” If you give off that vibe, they’ll run away from you… fast.
On the other hand, if you have good, completed plans, a solid vision for all the little details that aren’t in the plans, and are willing to start spending some money ASAP (“Buy the windows NOW!”), then you’re ready to talk to contractors.
We asked Jill for her recommendations and I asked my neighbors, the same ones who gave us Jill, for their contractor’s email address. They told me his name was Byron and that they loved working with him, too.
We contacted Byron and all four of Jill’s recommendations, and we wound up with four bids. We put them into a spreadsheet and tried to compare them. It was difficult because the line items wouldn’t line up. Some bids included countertops, for example, and others didn’t. Some had a flooring or HVAC allowance and others left it out. It made the comparison tricky, but I eventually figured it out.
One bidder was really high, almost 50% higher than the rest. He came off very professional and clearly wanted our business, but it scared us off. I couldn’t understand why his bid would be so far off, so I didn’t trust it. We turned him down. Another bid was in range but we didn’t like the contractor as much. He seemed a little distracted and we didn’t want delays. We let him go too.
That left Byron and Jim. Their bids were similar. They both were very nice. The difference was Jim had a crew of full-time employees and Byron worked with sub-contractors; he had no staff. On first blush, having a crew might seem like an advantage — they work for Jim! But on the other hand, they’re not incentivized to work fast. The length of our project has no bearing on their steady paychecks.
Byron claimed he could get our job done in about 5 months. Jim quoted 8 months. We obviously liked five months better, and with the cost of our rental, that was at least a $12,000 cash difference. And although Byron came off very casual (he admitted to not reviewing our plans when we first met), I believed that he could do it. I remembered how quickly my neighbor’s job was completed, and they just gushed over Byron and his crew.
We took a deep breath and agreed to go with Byron on October 29, 2020. We wouldn’t actually sign Byron’s contract until February 25, 2021, but we gave him a verbal commitment then. He told us to go and get our permits.
This took far longer than we expected.
We live in unincorporated Walnut Creek. It’s a weird designation which basically means we don’t belong to any particular city. For all the normal things you might need, like police services and building permits, we just go directly to the county. No city hall or special city rules. We call 9-1-1, and we get the county sheriff. We want to build something, and we go straight to Martinez, the capitol of Contra Costa County.
I will not mince words: the permitting process was a PAIN. You would think the county would be incentivized to push us through this process and collect on the higher property taxes. I get that it needs to be done right, but the delays here were unreal. Maybe it was COVID, maybe it was the holiday season. Who knows?
All I do know is this timeline was crazy.
- September 14, 2020: Dropped off the building plans at sanitation department
- September 24, 2020: Began working with an arborist on required tree removal plans
- September 25, 2020: Picked up approved building plans at sanitation department
- October 9, 2020: Planning department entered us into the online ePermit system
- October 20, 2020: Received the arborist report
- October 26, 2020: County told us that the building permit approval process will pause until we get the tree permits (!!!!)
- November 6, 2020: Assigned to a tree permit person
- ….. crickets ……
- December 22, 2020: ePermit updated with tree permit requirement
- December 29, 2020: Reached out to tree permit guy’s boss
- January 5, 2021: Notice sent out to neighbors about our building and tree removal plans
- January 19, 2021: Public comment period ended
- January 28, 2020: Received the tree permit
- ….. crickets ……
- March 5, 2021: BUILDING PERMIT ISSUED!
We discovered, to our dismay, that even despite bypassing city regulations, permits are not cheap.
- Tree permits: $6,500
- Building permits: $17,500
- Total permits: $24,000
Five months, 19 days, and twenty-four thousand dollars. Just for the privilege to build in Contra Costa County.
In the time between when we first got Byron’s numbers in October 2020 and when we signed his contract in February 2021, a lot happened. We worked with his suppliers and subs to refine our bid. We made a bunch of decisions on windows and doors and exterior trim.
We ordered all the big new appliances, like the Sub-Zero panel-ready side-by-side refrigerator and freezer, the wine refrigerator, and the dishwasher (we hand-washed dishes for six years with two kids at our old house!)
We went to Golden State Lumber and ordered our windows and doors. We checked out their trim options too and started talking about paint colors. We got swatches, lots and lots of swatches. And then we got samples to test out the swatches.
My wife bought a bunch of discounted tile from Heath and some custom fresh tile from them too. We talked endlessly about floors and carpets. We visited every kitchen appliance and countertop store in a 20 mile radius. We were starting to get all that figured out too.
We also needed to find a place to live! In order for Byron to work his five-month-magic, we needed to get out of his way. I found an option in San Francisco. Melissa found one elsewhere in our neighborhood.
Then I got an idea. There was a rental house getting remodeled just down the street from us. It was going really slowly, but timing just might work. The landlady lived around the corner from us. I called her and explained our situation. Would she be interested in a short-term tenant?
YES! I asked her for the lease and we locked it in. We’d live four doors down from our remodel. I was nervous about the arrangement since it could go either way: agonizing slow or fantastically fast. Fortunately, we witnessed the latter.
Here’s a glimpse of what we saw between March and September 2021.
Because of our creek setback and the forest of oak and bay trees in our yard, the only area we could expand was right along our neighbor’s fence. The problem was we had a bunch of trees in the way here too, hence the extended tree permitting process.
In all, we had to cut down eight trees, some much larger than others, and at the last minute we added a ninth. I’m not proud of this, but we really had no choice, and if we didn’t do it then I’m sure the next owners would. I still remember the last tree going down, its massive trunk hauled by crane over our house, dripping water like tears onto our roof.
Anyway, here’s the time lapse of the work done on this part of project. First, the deck was removed to get at the big cluster of bays and oaks. The large oak closest to our house was tricky because its massive root system went right up to our existing foundation and since the footing needed to pass through it, we had to grind really deep, and the stump grinders aren’t built to go more than 18 inches into the soil cover.
We eventually managed, though, and the foundation crew was able to set up the wooden forms to pour the footings. When the footings dried, the framing crew went to work, setting up the joists that criss-cross to support the subfloor. These guys worked fast. As soon as the footings were dry, they went to work, making huge progress every day. Subfloors went down and walls went up in no time, it seemed. Before we knew it, they were nailing on the external plywood, then the cement board exterior, and then the paint!
The final step, which was not part of the original contract (scope creep… again), was to wrap our deck around from the new extension to the new door in our new kitchen. The crew figured out that since they leveled off the house, raising it up to six inches in some places, the old deck framing was too low. They decided to completely strip the old deck and start over.
High on my must-have list was a bedroom and full bath for our guests. I always felt bad sending our family off to a hotel when they came to visit. It just didn’t feel right. We could have put the master suite upstairs but that also didn’t feel right. We wanted to be on the same level as our kids. So guest room up there just made sense.
The other half of the vaulted room would become an open media and play room. One thing my wife need to have, and I didn’t disagree, was a TV-free downstairs. She’s bothered by extraneous sounds — much more than I am — and Spongebob Squarepants sounds very extraneous. The TV common area was going to be upstairs.
I was worried at first that splitting the space in half was going to make both rooms feel too small. Upstairs before the walls went up actually felt pretty small. I didn’t believe Byron when he told me that the space will feel bigger and bigger as they progress through framing, drywall, and paint. He was right. Again.
When the walls were up we measured out a space for a couch and discovered that normal-sized couches were not going to cut it. This was a long wall and we were going to need a big couch. We settled on a 150″x100″ Ethan Allen sectional. We sat on a million couches and liked the look and feel of Ethan Allen best.
We also weren’t sure how big of a TV to get. We penciled it out on the wall but it was still hard to picture without the couch being there too. We bought a 75-inch Samsung The Frame and it’s perfect for the space. I really think we nailed this whole setup.
I’m also quite proud of my audio selection. You’ll see in the final picture a Sonos home theater system. It includes two wall-mounted Sonos One speakers, a sound bar, and a sub woofer. I love that the eArc HDMI allows the TV to automatically chooses the Sonos speakers when it’s on. I never have to set the external audio. When the TV isn’t on, I can play music through the home theater system simply by choosing it from my Spotify controls or by talking to Alexa. It’s amazing.
Plus, the sub woofer is LOUD. It gives you the deep warm bass sound that you really want on some songs. And somehow the Sonos software routes certain sounds between the sound bar and the mounted speakers to make an amazing surround sound. It’s a remarkable system and there’s no extra hardware. No rack in the back, no special receiver. It’s just Sonos.
Another thing we got right about the TV room is getting all the cables routed through the wall so the TV can mount flush. The whole point of The Frame is for it to be totally flush. Its hardware and ports are in a box in the corner of the room which is connected to the TV by a special cable. The HDMI cable for the Sonos sound bar also runs from the middle of the wall to the corner of the room. All of that was taken care of before the walls were closed up.
I just love this room. I’m sitting here now as I type this.
Here’s the progression of how the upstairs came to be.
The Saranap kitchen
The kitchen was my wife’s domain. So many decisions. So. Many. Decisions.
We knew we wanted it to be big, and we knew it made sense to have it basically take over the entirety of the old garage. We wanted a massive island, a prep sink in addition to the main sink, and we needed a pantry. My wife was also certain that we should add a “powder room” — basically a bathroom dedicated to our downstairs guests.
Her inspiration was Emily Henderson’s Portland Kitchen. I couldn’t complain — it’s beautiful — and since visualizing colors and tiles and cabinet locations is not my thing, I mostly just nodded as she described her vision.
Here are a few bullet points about kitchen remodels that I learned:
- Cabinet boxes and drawers are constructed before the doors. The doors are a specialty service ordered to spec based on the box dimensions. We used Igor, one of Byron’s guys, for the boxes and Dutchman Doors for the doors.
- It really helps to have a 3D rendering. We commissioned one on Upwork for about $2,500 and ended up changing the design as a result. Here it is.
- There are a million types of countertop and you can’t really go wrong (unless you pick marble, which stains easily). I’m really glad we landed on quartzite (Victoria Falls, to be exact) after almost going with a Cambria quartz.
- The pantry is clutch. It’s just so nice to have all the dry food stored on open shelves instead of having to rummage through low cabinets to find that can of beans.
- Stacked ovens are the way to go. Our lower oven is a standard convection and our upper is a “speed oven” which basically is a combination toaster oven microwave. This setup will come in handy on Thanksgiving.
- Induction cooktops are amazing. More on all that here.
- Our kitchen is big. I mean BIG. Byron approved, though. He said in most houses, even fancy ones, the kitchens are too small and the master bedrooms are too big. He said we got it right.
- We tiled to the ceiling and didn’t put any cabinet uppers where traditionally they’d go above the cooktop. It’s a nice clean look, but we had the luxury of not needing the additional storage.
- We put two speakers in the ceiling and connected them to a Sonos amp so we can ask Alexa to play music there or select it from our Spotify app. Wired speakers in the kitchen are awesome.
- We got Brizo SmartTouch faucets. I didn’t care when my wife brought this up, figuring I didn’t have to use it if I didn’t want to. Now I can’t imagine life without it. It’s nice to be able to turn the sink on and off by touching the back of my hand to it when they’re dirty or full.
- We added an insta-hot faucet. I love to have water on tap that’s hot enough to brew tea or coffee on the fly. I also use it to clean stubborn greasy dishes.
- We got this Franke sink with a tray that has two levels. This feature works because the sides are square. Seems like a subtle, shrug-worthy feature but it’s actually quite nice to have the raised sink tray for prepping vegetables and the lower one for washing out bowls.
- We splurged on panel-ready Sub-Zero side-by-side refrigerator freezer. That’s the cabinet to the right in the picture below. It’s not at all necessary but I’m glad we stretched the budget and did it. Super clean look.
- We also wanted an “appliance garage” for the coffee maker and toaster. This essentially means putting a 4-plug jack in the back of a cabinet. We put that to the left of the Sub-Zero with a little decorative space between them. We could have put an upper cabinet here but we opted not to.
- I also got my booze cabinet. Here we have a dual-zone beverage refrigerator (properly chilled red wine is divine), wine rack, and hard liquor sliding drawer.
- The smaller drawers are holding junk mail and coloring materials for the kiddos for now. The way we use this area will evolve over time.
- Finally, I really wanted drawer inserts. These are all Rev-A-Shelf pre-fabricated inserts that we cut down to size to fit into our drawers. It really makes a difference in look and feel and they’re each just around $50 each.
The kitchen is gorgeous. There’s no other way to describe it. It’s a show-stopper when people walk into our house. It’s welcoming, functional, clean, and BIG. It’s where we eat breakfast, where I read the newspaper, and catch up with my wife halfway through the day. I love it. There’s nothing I would change.
Finally, here are a few before-and-after shots of the kitchen construction.
Emily Henderson called hers the “Portland kitchen.” So we’ll call this one the “Saranap.”
The big vaulted bedroom
This is the room that my wife is probably most proud of. Even prouder than the kitchen, which is saying a lot.
I love this room too because, if you’ll recall from the beginning of this novella, having a real grownup bedroom was the main thrust of this whole endeavor. We didn’t remodel the whole house to get a nice kitchen. We did it for the bedroom.
Before I go on, you have to understand that our bedroom before was small. It could fit a king bed and a dresser and that’s it. There was a big window but no fan, and we had a closet with two sliding doors. We stepped out onto a squeaky hallway that inevitably woke our daughters up when we were just trying to sneak into the kitchen to brew a quiet cup of coffee. So having a big bedroom with a sitting area, our own bathroom with a carpeted walk-in closet, and an enclosed toilet room so it doesn’t monopolize the bathroom is… amazing.
Our vanity was custom-built by the same guy who did our kitchen. The wood was stained by the same guy who painted our kitchen cabinets. The vanity countertop is also the same quartzite that we used in the kitchen. It helps to have the same guys knock out all the upgrades in all the rooms!
Rather than dual sinks, we opted for one. We just don’t brush our teeth at exactly the same time and don’t run into bathroom faucet conflicts. A single sink has been just fine and makes the vanity look even bigger (and at 10 feet long, it’s already big!)
The shower is tiled top-to-bottom with more Heath. There’s not a lot to say about it. It’s beautiful, of course, and we knew it would be because we love Heath. It’s big but not absurdly big. I don’t know why some houses have showers bigger than the master closet. Or two shower heads, for that matter. (Do most couples take showers together all the time? Are we the odd ones out?) The glass door finishes the look so we can always see that lovely tile.
We carpeted the walk-in closet and added two sets of built-in drawers. The top drawer is slightly shorter than the rest. Igor did a beautiful job with these too. It’s a treat to have solid, custom built-ins like this.
The closet is simple, just 6′ by 10′. It’s big enough for us both to stand in there but with the drawers and clothes in the way, we wouldn’t both get dressed at the same time. It’s plenty for one, though. Since neither of us have a ton of clothes, and our bulky jackets are in the new coat closet by the entrance, it’s been totally fine.
The wide hallway
The hallways in our addition are about six feet wide. It’s a subtle touch on paper, but it’s a luxurious vibe to walk through them. It’s the horizontal equivalent of a high ceiling. If you have the space, I definitely recommend it. It feels really, really nice.
We got a finished garage because the crews were here and it was one of those things we figured we’d regret if we didn’t do it. I’m glad we tacked it on.
The shape of the garage is odd along the perimeter because of our creek setback and other constraints. We wanted at least a 20′ x 20′ garage and wound up with one a bit over 520 square feet in size. It has a bunch of plugs along the walls, and an ethernet port just for good measure.
One thing I was adamant about, and very glad we included, was a utility sink. Our last garage had one and I used it all the time. Painting supplies, shoes with dog poop, and anything else gross got washed in it. I definitely did not want to use our kitchen sinks for that mess, so the garage utility sink got brought into the fold. I bought the floating cast iron sink on Wayfair and it has held up well so far.
A few more thoughts about construction
Construction is insane. It’s chaotic, it’s expensive, it takes a long time, and it stresses you out. Looking back, I can’t believe my family moved out of our house for six months while this happened. I can’t believe we were able to save and borrow (Figure.com home equity line of credit for the win!) enough to do a project like this.
I also can’t believe how well it turned out. Everyone seemed to be on the same page. They shared the vision. I credit our designer and contractor tremendously for that. I also give a tremendous amount of credit and respect to my wife for making 99% of the decisions that make this house so beautiful.
I remember taking these pictures below, eager with anticipation, scared at how un-finished it looked, and really having no idea what I would be looking at standing in the same place just a few months later. And this is the magic and beauty of construction. Plans get drawn, a framework goes up, and then it gets polished off. The same series of steps that happens in every project: digging foundations, pouring concrete into forms, framing walls and pushing them up, trusses on the roof, siding on the outside, paint. The same process for each build yields a different result.
The guys that do this must get great satisfaction in seeing a building go up. I hope they do.