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Welcome to the new column

by Steve McKee on March 21, 2004

Hi, folks. I’m an architect with an idea for a new column for the Herald. It’s inspired by the fact that many of the people I meet around Benicia have the same questions about home building and design. Maybe I can answer some of them here, in what I hope will be a casual and loose format. I anticipate this column to run once or twice a month. I’d like to write about all things having to do with the design and building of houses as I’ve come to know them, or as I can best research them. There may be a blend of fact-filled articles mixed with anecdotes from “the field.”

I hope to always speak frankly and not take the edge off an idea by resorting to platitudes and comments so general that they’re useless. If we are going to discuss different types of siding for a house, I don’t want to quote the manufacturer’s promotional literature. Rather, I want to discuss it in the manner builders would discuss it at a job site, not mincing words. I won’t be urging you every few months to go out and “check the condition of the caulking around your windows” (who has time for that?) But if you live in a house with T1-11 siding (plywood siding with vertical grooves) I’ll make a strong case for monitoring the condition of the paint (which is the only thing shielding you and your plywood from delamination and ruin and heartache and woe.)

I expect to range far and wide in these columns. Some future columns will discuss remodeling and building terminology, and by that I mean the really useful terms that will allow you to be more conversant with your builder or designer.

Many different subjects can be discussed, such as: Should you stay in or move out during the remodeling? How to pick a builder. What’s easy and the difficult about remodeling Southampton homes? What’s really involved in fitting a second floor addition to a one story house? I’ll share with you some lessons that builders and I learned from the 80 mile per hour winds we had last winter. At what moment is it good to involve an architect in your thinking? When does an open plan become too open? How to find out what your project will cost.

By way of introduction, I’m an architect who has lived and worked in Benicia since 1989. Through a series of happy coincidences and life events I’ve come to do residential design only. I grew up in Alamo, about 15 miles south of Benicia, then left for UCLA in the late 70’s where I enjoyed watching not-quite-championship-level basketball games and passed frequent all night drawing sessions fueled (occasionally) by candy bars and (almost always) by the Pat Metheny Group on the walkman. Therein followed a few years working for small architectural offices and following my college sweetheart Melody to Redding California for a three year stay including a wedding.

I learned Benicia was much more than just a bridge and a mothball fleet to be viewed briefly on the way to Tahoe in 1988 when I was hired to design a multifamily project in town that never got built. I happened to be looking for somewhere to settle down and here was a town that seemed genuine and had real layers to it, from the quirky mismatched buildings that every matured downtown should have, to the craggy coastline with it’s little bays and decades-old piers in various states of repair. There were back alleys with hidden pockets of blackberry bushes and even a retired state capitol and geodesic domes and everything in between. Just about every architectural style from the last century and a half could be found here. It was mellow and intense all at once.

I was interested in doing the fixer upper thing, so I bought the worst house with the best water view that was available in the spring of 1989. Such a house cost about $149K, and that felt like quite a bit of money at the time. It was a leap of faith for Melody to trust my vision for the sorry house we bought on West K Street. Together we were “hands on” in every aspect of the reconstruction of our home. We even added a second floor. Those years were my “pre-busy” years when I could dote on minor things like visiting three different tile places in an afternoon and still have time to play fetch the frisbee with Nimby that evening. Those were the days. Andy Rooney would agree with me, probably.

Many a hard earned lesson was learned in that home building adventure. I went on to build a few custom homes designed for resale (i.e. spec homes) with my dad and followed that up with a few years of buying and taking apart and rebuilding “physically distressed properties” in Vallejo, Fairfield and Benicia. These were recession years when there were maybe four guys total who would take a look at any given fixer upper home that was for sale. Nowadays, in these boom times, everybody and their brother is doing it. All of which is fine with me, as I have come full circle back to my chosen profession of home design, having given myself quite an education in the process. I may miss the occasional beautiful spring day spent sheeting a roof and watching fair weather clouds highlighting a blue sky, but am very happy to give up the almost daily wait in line at Home Depot.

I draw houses now, which is probably a better use for that masters degree anyway. I meet with people in their homes and together we figure out the best ways to make their house better. That’s what I do. The walkman is gone, replaced by desktop Harman speakers, but Pat Metheny is still a favorite for the late night sessions I still pull with certain frequency. Happily, the late nights are there to allow me to sometimes take afternoon breaks to goof off with my kids, another distinct advantage of working solo out of my home. Nimby is still with us, though at fifteen years of age, her frisbee days are over.


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