News Reflections

You’re always “building your own house”

I’m reading a book called “Chop Wood Carry Water” by Joshua Medcalf. It is a zen tale on how to achieve your personal best. One of the more interesting stories is about a Tokyo architect Kota (no last name) who spent his career building homes with incredible exactitude and devotion. After many, many years he became tired of building homes for others and decided to retire. 

One day he handed in his two-week notice but the boss asked him, while acknowledging all of the amazing work that he’d done for the firm, whether he would please build just one more house. It was for a very important client and the boss needed Kota’s magic touch.

After agonizing over the decision he decided to build the house. But his heart was no longer in it. He viewed the job as an obligation and consequently a lot of the exacting details fell through the cracks. After four months the house was finished. Kota was ready to move on to the next phase of his life.

When he told the boss the house was finished the boss reached into his desk and handed him a small black box with a red ribbon around it. Inside were shiny new keys. The boss said, “The house is yours! You deserve it!”

Kota was crushed. The entire time Kota was cutting corners in order to get this last job out of the way, all the while unknowingly building his own house.

Akita, the master teacher in the book, explains, “Each of us are building our own house. Sometimes you might think you are building for your school, your family, your company, or your team, but you are always building your own house… I hope you build wisely.”

When I left my career in technology I decided to build homes and sell them. I had worked with architects before and greatly enjoyed the process. So I moved from the San Francisco Bay Area to Sonoma County, bought some land, hired an architect, and got to work. But I had difficulty finding a decent place to rent. Eventually I found an apartment in a drab apartment complex, with a shaggy rug still there from the 1970s, or so it seemed. 

A modular home with three separate units that connect via outdoor breezeways
The kitchen, living room & dining room encompass a single module. The other two modules are bedrooms.

I enjoyed the day to day work of managing the contractors, coordinating the pieces of the puzzle, and seeing the empty land give rise to a lovely, unique residence.

I sold the place in 2 days, but the deal died and I had to wait 35 more days until it sold again, this time for good.

During that time I moved from the drab apartment to my beautiful home. It was heaven, but only temporarily.

Then I decided to move to a less expensive state, Washington, where I bought land with a two dwelling limit. I thought I’d build the rental unit first and then the main house afterwards. But by the time I finished the rental unit my capital was too low to build anything else. I had also made plans for the main house with a girlfriend, but that relationship ended.

Again I had to rent, this time in Port Townsend, where I found a duplex that wasn’t as bad as my Sonoma apartment. And as usual, I visited the building project each day, but this time I joined the crew, wore a tool belt, and followed orders from the builder. Of course it was still my design (with help from an architect), but the builder drove the daily tasks.

The work was hard and the weather even more challenging (for example, during the winter months there were days when the wood studs were frozen, as the lumber was not fully dried). 

This 2 bedroom rental unit with a garage/studio apartment on the first level was all I was able to accomplish on this building site
Across the quiet road was a larger lot with amazing views of the Puget Sound

In both building projects it was always a highlight to engage with the contractors and crews. In Washington my builder and I bonded. We went crabbing or drank beer after a solid week’s work.

But at the end of the day, during both building projects, I came home to an empty apartment in an unfamiliar town. I couldn’t reconcile my construction life with my “home” life. It all felt too temporary.

In reading about the Tokyo architect, I felt good about the fact that I didn’t cut corners on either of my projects, or any of the 7 building projects that I’ve been involved in. But the idea that I was always building my own house struck me. Was I always building MY own house? In a sense yes, as a process of discovery on how to build and what to build, under the constraints of a given piece of property.

Yet in my mind I sometimes separated out the fact that I had to sell the units and they were NOT mine. But of course they were. It was my process of choosing X over Y.

It is always my process. It is always my house.

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