Building a new house in Palo Alto

Building a new house in Palo Alto

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

The Old is New Again: The story of our reclaimed Redwood house features

My favorite features of our new house are the old parts of it.

The day our offer was accepted for our Palo Alto property I had to drop off a deposit check at the selling agent's office. The owner of the house happened to be there so the agent asked me to come in and meet her. I was a little nervous because conventional real estate wisdom says that buyers and sellers should never meet lest someone says something that makes the deal go south.

"So, you love the house right?" the owner asked earnestly.

"Yes, we love the neighborhood...and the trees...and the parks and open space...and the fact that you can walk to all the schools," I gushed, trying not to blow the deal. Indeed those were all things that we loved about the house--everything but the house itself. I rarely fall in love with a house until I make it my own, plus we were planning on rebuilding part or all of it, so I wasn't personally attached to the structure. Needless to say the deal went through but her question made me reflect on the sanctity of a well-loved home.

The original house built in 1952 as part of a new development. (Photo via Google Maps).

The Deconstruction
While navigating bidding strategies, multiple offers and nearly non-existent inventory it's easy to forget that the piece of property you're fighting over was someone's home. Our seller and her siblings had grown up in this house and it stored a lifetime of memories. Knowing this, the thought of bulldozing down and disposing someone's childhood home seemed disrespectful and flat out wrong.

After much research we decided to deconstruct the house. Instead of doing a demolition and taking the debris to the dump, we hired Rebuild Green to painstakingly dismantle the house piece by piece, board by board to reuse and recycle everything and anything that could have another life.
Deconstructing the original house and saving the redwood siding to be reused.

Here's a Wall Street Journal video about deconstruction starring Rod Cooper, James Witt & yours truly.

Old lumber is better than new

Living in Silicon Valley—the techno capital of the world—where iPhone models become obsolete in a year and cars will soon be driving themselves, we often assume that new is better. When it comes to wood, this is not always the case. While gathering quotes from deconstruction specialists, the one part of the house that had everyone drooling was the 1950's redwood siding. Lumber used back then was not farmed, it was harvested from our once abundant forests. Nowadays the only place you can find wood like that is in our protected national parks.

Today's farmed lumber is manufactured from fast-growing commercial plantations where trees are cut young and dried in kilns. Naturally aged wood is dense with tight rings and low moisture content which makes it rot resistent and reduces the tendency to shrink and pull apart. Here's a photo from a great blog post about reclaimed lumber:
"Below is a cross section of two 2x4s. The one on the left is over 100 years old. The other on the right is about 5 years old. Both of these are pine. The old lumber has very tight and dense rings. The new lumber on the right has broad rings. Today's lumber is grown on tree farms where the trees are given growth hormones. Old growth trees took 100 years to reach maturity. Today's trees are ready to harvest in 20." [Source: Ogden Insights]
Old vs young lumber.
Building with reclaimed wood
We decided we wanted to incorporate the redwood siding from the old house into our new one so our general contractor brought in master carpenter, Charles Dubois, to help design something special. Working with reclaimed wood requires extra patience, ingenuity and an artisan's attitude. It's not something that you want a run of the mill production line crew hammering through. Charles spent his childhood on construction sites, picking up loose nails for a penny and learning the art of carpentry from his builder dad, Jim. The two now team up to run their family construction business building homes and taking on specialty projects like ours. Speaking of old becoming new again, I've found that many of the best trade people come from families who have been doing it for decades. Knowledge and skills get passed down and age-old techniques are refined and "reclaimed" by each new generation. 

Below is a photo documentary of all the steps (there were many!) involved in reclaiming our redwood siding and transforming it into beautiful details throughout our house. To keep it low maintenance, we mainly put it in areas that don't get a lot of exposure to the sun and rain. We started with porch ceilings.

Instead of stripping the paint from the front of the siding, we used the backside which hadn't seen the light of day in over 60 years and was still in great condition. Mature redwood is naturally rot and pest resistant so holds up well over time.

Some of the siding was a little rough around the edges or stained from the tar paper so Charles ran each piece through a planer a few times to clean them up and make them smooth. Rebuild Green's dream team did a great job de-nailing the lumber. The siding was completely free of metal. It's important to inspect reclaimed wood because a single stray nail can ruin a saw blade.
Originally 1"x8" lap siding, Charles and Jim used a 200-pound workshop saw to cut the pieces down to size and remove the lapped edges. Each board had a natural shape to it, many were bowed or wonky, so they devised a 12-foot long table saw fence using a few pieces of white trim stacked together and clamped to the saw. This served as a guide for the saw so that they could cut perfectly straight edges (without the guide, the saw would've followed the curvature of each board).

They decided on 3 1/2 inch wide planks since they could cut two pieces out of every 8 inch wide board. More precious, precious wood...

and minimal waste!

Charles created plywood cut-outs in the size of each porch ceiling and painted them black.  He mounted these to the ceiling as a backing material so that he could nail boards into any part of the ceiling. He painted them black so that if any of the boards shrank over time, the gaps would be less noticeable.

Our chevron front porch ceilings
Since, thanks to too many hours browsing photos on Houzz, I am obsessed with chevron patterns, Charles designed a porch ceiling with perfectly proportioned zig-zag panels. By the way, he calls it herringbone, I call it chevron...apparently, there is a difference between the two. To keep it from being too busy, Charles suggested we add a straight  board between each zig and zag panel. I was skeptical at first but then really liked how it turned out.

His dad Jim cut an angle into each board end, used a hand sander for final smoothing, and then applied glue to the back of each piece before handing it off to Charles to mount. The boards are held in place with glue, as well as nails. Working together, they were able to get a beautifully tight, precise fit with no gaps. If you look closely you can see black marks from the original nail holes but this is considered part of the beauty and authenticity of reclaimed wood. 

Charles was very fussy not only about the layout but the composition, as well. He mixed a combination of light and dark pieces to show off the wood's character and rich patina. 

A simple mosaic porch ceiling
We did the front porches in the chevron pattern but mixed it up for the side porch (aka the dogs' yard) with a simple mosaic. 

Turning exposed beams into architectural eye candy
Next we moved to the interior. We decided to turn a structural necessity—the beams in our downstairs flex room (aka the guest wing for our parents) into a feature. 

Charles and his dad boxed out the exposed beams with black plywood then wrapped it with our pretty reclaimed redwood.  

Et voilà! C'est magnifique non? I managed to find a chic ceiling fan that perfectly matches the redwood.

Obligatory dog photo
At this point, I started looking for any excuse to incorporate more reclaimed redwood into our house. After all, I was falling in love with everything Charles and Jim designed with it. Plus, the color matches Astro's fur (unlike our stucco), what's not to love about that? 

The pièce de résistance...gable covers!
We were originally going to just buy boring off-the-shelf metal gable covers but decided it'd be the perfect place to work in something a couple of cherries on the top of our house. 

These required extra ingenuity since Charles had to make 14 degree and 63 degree cuts in the wood so that the joint where the "veins" come together would be perfectly tight. Standard tools max out at 45 degrees so he had to get creative with a table saw set-up and a radial arm saw. He tried explaining the process to me but it went way over my head. While I can't appreciate the mechanics of what went into building them, I was awestruck by the sheer beauty of his creation. 

In building the trim around the gable covers, Charles left the reveal (where the veins come together) uncovered.  It's a small detail but a sign of Charles' craft-above-all design philosophy. It would've been easy to hide sloppy cuts behind a piece of trim and from 30 feet below certainly no one will notice the difference, but that's not how Charles rolls.   

Making everything matchy-matchy
One of the final steps was to tie all the different wood elements together. Our garage door is African Mahogany (from Garage Doors, Inc.) and our front door is made out of a renewable wood called Lyptus (from Pioneer Millwork).  We wanted both doors to match the reclaimed redwood as closely as possible.  

If you're going to stain your garage and front doors, make sure you ask for extra wood samples when you order them. That way you can test different stains on them to find the best possible color. 

Matching three different woods is not easy but our stain guy Dennis worked wonders. A good stain guy is worth his weight in gold because you don't get a second chance when it comes to staining wood. 

The magic of lighting
We had originally planned to just put recessed lights on the porch until Jeff and Charles came up with the brilliant idea to also light the gables. Our crafty electrician James, wired some no-frills LED ribbon lighting to the back of the gables' facia boards and the result was amazing. Well, amazing until later that night when the sticky backing gave out and we had what looked like a string of janky Christmas lights dangling from the gables. Duct tape works as a quick fix but if you want your lights to stay put for the long haul, be sure to put in brackets like the ones above. 

Thomas on the roof duct-taping our LED strip lighting so I could get a good blog photo.

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