Living in an Unconventional Space – The good and the bad

I wanted to give this idea some time to simmer before I responded to your requests to know what we love and don’t love about living in the firehouse. It’s very easy for me to focus on all of the good things. I love living in an unconventional space. This is literally a dream come true for both of us, and it’s very hard to picture what our lives would look like in any other dwelling. I’m also an optimist so I tend to focus on the good and let negative things fade away. But the truth is there are some not great things about owning and living in a building like ours. So here’s my list.

The Good

So much space: When the weather is bad outside, I frequently toss the ball for Hank in our studio. I stand at one end and he happily fetches repeatedly. Every time we do this I think “I really love this building.” That’s just one example of the how great it has to have so much space at our disposal. We have room for everything! Want to horde a vintage fireplace? There’s room for that! Want to invite a massive amount of people over for a party? No problem. The only limitation is seating and silverware. We can dream big and put all of this space to use – like sectioning up the basement into a wine cellar, workshop and storage (in descending order of importance).

Design freedom: Every house has a particular feel to it and I think it’s important to maintain that character. IMHO it’s insane to put a sleek, modern kitchen into a clearly Spanish style home. It just doesn’t jive. (Side note: Has anyone else noticed that when there’s a kitchen makeover on House Hunters: Renovations the designer ALWAYS suggests shaker style cabinets as a way to bridge people’s styles? It literally doesn’t matter what styles they’re trying to bring together, the answer is always shaker style cabinets… and “a take on subway tile” that is usually a bit bigger than average or colored. It’s cracking me up.) The firehouse comes expectation free, like a blank canvas, and we love that. It has so many beautiful features that make it feel like a firehouse (I always think of the banister in the stairwell when I think about this) that we would never change. And those elements work really well with our modern, minimalist, industrial design style

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Live/work balance: We moved to St. Louis in part because we loved that the architecture supports live/work spaces. The first time we strolled down Cherokee street we marveled at the relatively low cost to rent a storefront. When we moved to St. Louis, that’s just want we did – eventually occupying two different spaces on the very street that tempted us to move. We also rented a condo in Benton Park, completely splitting our work space from our living space.

And it sucked, like so bad. Going to the studio felt like WORK. It was the difference between dropping into another room to work vs agreeing “we need to work tonight” and then driving over there, turning everything on, and WORKING. The difference was incredibly stark when we had a no-show meeting with a prospective client. We’d race through dinner, drive to the studio, get everything turned on and then be forced to wait an appropriate amount of time before saying “Well, I guess they’re not coming.” At the firehouse, if someone doesn’t show we can be onto the next thing in our evening in a matter of minutes. I don’t know if that makes any sense, but we hated it.

We knew that we needed to get back into a space that held our photography business and our personal life. The firehouse gave that to us almost perfectly. The studio a contained space with a door. It’s where we work, but it doesn’t FEEL like work to drop in there after dinner and respond to client emails.  (If you want more details about how we go to the firehouse, feel free to dive into this post.)

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Instant connection: The firehouse has given us an instant way to connect with a lot of people. Whether they saw us on House Hunters or just heard that their friend’s wedding photographer lives in a firehouse, we have instant common ground with a lot of people. As an introvert, I also appreciate the fact that I have a conversation filler always at the ready. When you tell people you live in a firehouse, 95% of them have so many questions. The 5% I’ve found that are not that interested are my European colleagues. Perhaps they’re so used to re-appropriating buildings in countries that have much longer histories than ours that they are unfazed? Or maybe I’m just a weird American. I’m not sure.

 

The Bad

So much space: Yes, this is also on the good list. The amount of space is truly a good and a bad thing. The only negative we had when considering whether to purchase the firehouse was the amount of space. It’s massive (5k+ square feet). That means the projects are bigger and take more supplies and more time. It means the messes are huge. Heck, even the amount of finished space that we have to keep clean is overwhelming. And, truth be told, cleaning is not my forte. I’d much rather cook, or workout, or nap or pretty much do anything besides clean when I have time off.

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The proportions are a little funky: It’s a common quirk of an unconventional home that the way spaces are divided up may not fit what you would normally want in a home. For instance, the captain’s bedroom is bigger than my kitchen. As someone who cooks almost every day I would LOVE to have a bigger kitchen, but it’s just not in the cards. Truth be told, if we could start fresh on the upstairs layout we would change a lot of things. These are things we talk about whilst sitting on the couch with a glass of wine. The “what if’s” of moving walls is so easy when it’s just a dream. In reality, it’s not worth the time or effort to make the kind of large-scale changes that dramatically alter the spaces that are already defined.

Water tap meant for a firehouse: People frequently ask about our utility bills, but those have never been a source of frustration because we were paying a similar amount when our rentals spanned a condo and a studio. Actually, the new HVAC systems have already started to pay off in terms of lower bills. But we have finally hit a utility that is painful because of the firehouse: water. There’s a very long story (… really a rant) behind all this, but basically we didn’t pay for water for nearly two years after moving into the firehouse. We paid a bill, but apparently it was only for sewer service. Things are finally cleared up (sadly they didn’t just write off our water use) and apparently the city has an added tax based on the size of your water tap. Not surprising: ours is huge! So despite the fact that this isn’t a firehouse and we’re not using water like a firehouse, we pay triple the price of a normal house just to be connected to a water supply. Ugh.

Whew! So many words and so few pictures! So, what did we miss? What would you still like to know?

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Starting the natural fence

Thank you so much for the kind words and encouragement on last week’s post. We were both pleasantly surprised by the number of comments and the outpouring of support. You guys are awesome! Virtual hugs for everyone!

I remembered that we finished a project this summer that I have yet to share. So before we dive into some other topics (like Paris and what we like/don’t like about living in an alternative space and PARIS!), let’s take a look at the start of the natural fence. Ta da!

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… It’s the 5 new trees next to the fence… I feel like you’re not impressed…

To be fair, as with most landscaping projects, this feels a bit like “before and before” pictures, rather than “before and after”, because we need everything to grow to achieve the desired effect.

But, let’s back up. We bought the extra lot (LOTS of detail on that here) but never intended to redo the fence to make it part of our yard. Still, it needs some barriers to prevent people from walking through it/dumping trash/messing with the garden we intend to build. In the back we’ll install something a bit more standard, but up front we thought it would be nice to plant a living fence in the form of a row of evergreens.

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Aaron spotted some nice sized specimens at Home Depot earlier this spring. We planned to grab the trees we needed when they went on clearance at the end of the summer. So we bided our time.. and apparently we bided too long… We stopped by in mid-August to find all of the shrubs had been sold!

Thankfully the interwebs knew we needed some shrubbery, and after a little research on what should grow well, we landed on Leyland Cypress. The Tree Center had several heights available and good reviews. We decided on the 3′ – 4′ option (mostly based on price) and ordered seven. They were on sale for $44.50 each and we scored free shipping for spending more than $100. Winning!

It’s been a few years since we drug hundreds of pounds of bricks out of our yard, but we were quickly reminded just how much debris is lurking beneath the surface of these lots that once contained a brick home… and now contain a good part of that home beneath the surface.  This is just some of the pieces we hauled out of one hole.

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It wasn’t totally smooth sailing, but by taking turns digging we were able to plant a tree about every 35 minutes. We opted to stagger the trees (using the measurements from here) so that the fence fills in faster.

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We also only planted five of them. As we were working, we decided that the area furthest from our fence is too shaded to support this type of tree. Eventually, we’ll add a section of horizontal ipe to finish off the row.

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Here are a few before and after shots.

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The whole tree buying experience got us really inspired to think about what other trees we ultimately want for the yard. We talked about adding something that has nice fall color near the front of the yard and grabbing additional evergreens to stick in the back corner (which is a bit bare after we lost a tree). We almost added more to our order, but decided that planting seven trees in one weekend was more than enough. I’m so glad we waited, because we knew just what to do with the two extra trees.

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We waited a week to put these guys in their new home (apparently 5 trees in one day was quite enough.) In the meantime, the temperature spiked back to normal August levels and we ended up digging these holes in full sun next our steel paneled fence (which gets really warm.) Basically it felt like we were on the surface of the sun… minus our skin literally melting away. But you get the point. It was REALLY hot and we ran into even more bricks, rocks and chunks of asphalt back here. Progress was slow and we’ll admit that neither hole was the requisite diameter. But they’re in and so far they’re alive.

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So now we water and wait.

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You’re healthy until you’re not

Before you get too excited, we’re both essentially fine – nothing life threatening is happening. This was just the sentence that kept playing through my head last night and spurred me to start a blog post on my phone. (That’s normal, right?)

One of the last times we visited Kansas City, I remember sitting (nearly falling asleep, really) on Aaron’s grandma’s couch as the elders of the tribe discussed their various ailments. At one point, I was called out on not participating in the conversation. I was awake enough to retort “I don’t have any health issues to discuss.”

Such is the way of life. You’re healthy until you’re not. If this year has a theme it is certainly “Aaron is not healthy.”  His injured foot, which ultimately led to canceling most of our spring camping plans and buying a different trailer, is mostly healed.

Thankfully, his foot was healthy enough for us to enjoy a few days on Bourbon Trail in late May. But when we came back, he promptly got poison ivy from the extra lot. Two things you should know: 1. Aaron is highly allergic to poison ivy. 2. Urban poison ivy is a serious issue… at least in our extra lot. In this case, he got poison ivy on his hands (Yikes!) and it was bad. (You’re welcome for not sharing pictures.) Without going into too many details (again, you’re welcome) the poison ivy just wouldn’t go away. It wrecked his hands to the point that it hurt to hold a hammer.

He finally heeded my advice and visited the doctor. The diagnosis: (probably) psoriasis that was triggered by the poison ivy. Medications have been procured and I have nearly every finger crossed for a quick recovery.

I mention all of this because firehouse progress has been slow… actually that was generous. Firehouse progress has been nonexistent. You may have noticed…

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We’re also facing our busiest time of year: fall wedding season. I counted and between both jobs I have 5 (FIVE!) days off during the entire month of October. Dear Lord…

So, I was wondering if there was anything I could blog about in the meantime – anything you’d like to know or see? Maybe you want an update on the fence? Maybe you want to hear about our Bourbon Trail trip or my excursion to Paris (ahhhhhh! I still don’t really believe it!)? Maybe you’d be satisfied with random dog pictures and videos? (Example below where they prove that through teamwork they can block the entire kitchen floor.) Maybe you have some burning questions for us – firehouse or not-firehouse related. Tell me, friends.

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Meanwhile in the half bath

Many a joke (and even a few drinking games) have been derived from the common requests of people featured on House Hunters. While I find most of them laughable (can you really NOT share a sink in your master bath?!), personally I wouldn’t want to buy a house without a bathroom on the first floor. It just seems so inconvenient to send guests up a flight of stairs when nature calls. So, while we haven’t focused much on the half bath on our first floor, it’s a feature of the firehouse that I’m really happy we have.

It’s also been a bit ignored because we’ve done zero updates. That’s all changing as part of the downstairs redo. Let’s take a look at what we’re working with.

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It’s a pretty narrow room, which makes it hard to photograph.

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But it does get style points for the original slop sink!

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It loses major points for the ceiling.

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It’s a hodgepodge that has been made worse over time (and many owners). It features a light bulb socket (“fixture” seemed like it was giving it too much credit), fan, HVAC duct (which is not actually connected to the HVAC system), hole (I’m assuming that was used to install the HVAC or the fan) and an hole that allows a length of conduit with a large ground wire to connect to the water line.

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Also it’s made of plaster, so fixing the holes would be a giant pain. So we’re taking it out, adding some framing and putting up drywall. This will also give us a chance to reconfigure the placement of the light (like, maybe centering it!) and HVAC as well as replace the fan.

Aaron started by removing everything and then basically beat the ceiling with a hammer until most of the plaster was on the floor.

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I came home to this:

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The next step is remove the wire mesh. Then we can frame, drywall, add a light and have our first floor bathroom back in action while it awaits the other critical steps before paint.

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6 tips for finding a wood slab

I honestly don’t know when we decided that a live edge slab table would be perfect for the dining room. For me it may have taken root when we were featured in Alive Magazine along with some other owners of unusual homes and peeped Charlie Smith’s beautiful table. Whenever it did take hold, it grabbed on and didn’t let go. We’ve been picturing a gorgeous slab of wood for that space for awhile. It will add the perfect natural, warm element to the white space (are you new here? We love white paint) and black chairs.

The search for the slab was one of the most time intensive processes we’ve undertaken for the firehouse to date. It was complicated by so many variables, some usual, some unique to the particular item we sought. We looked at so many slabs, inquired about several, and lost a few due to timing or miscommunication. So by the time we found the one we bought it was almost a fever pitch of “let’s get this done! SeriouslyHURRYbuyitnow!!” So here I am, well past the point when an enormous piece of wood came to live in our studio and ready to tell you about the hunt, but with basically zero real examples of slabs we loved and lost. #badblogger

What I can share are the lessons we learned along the way. Let’s start with what we wanted: A large, live-edge slab of wood, preferably walnut, rot/holes/knots that added interest welcome, budget: $1,200

1. Measure first
Yeah, I know. This should always be the first step, but we started this process assuming we knew what size we needed. Aaron launched into a search with a rough idea in his head, pulled lots of options and THEN we measured. It was a very scientific effort involving a card table, chairs and some painter’s tape.

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It turned out that the space could hold a pretty large table: 48 – 50″ wide by 120″ long.

2. Start early, like really early
It probably goes without saying that something natural like wood slabs have a limited and often changing inventory. Also, once you find the perfect piece it may need some time to dry. A green slab air drys for about 2 years and then it goes in a massive kiln for 3 – 5 months, which leads me to the next point.

3. Learn the lingo
It’s critical to understand the steps involved in prepping a piece of wood to live in your dining room because you can buy slabs at every stage. Ultimately, it will affect the cost and how much work you have to put in once it arrives.

After a tree is cut into slabs, those pieces of wood must be dried to be used for furniture. See process above. We knew we wanted a slab that was already kiln dried.

A particular slab can have some cupping, bowing on either side that doesn’t make it totally flat. This is why it’s helpful to get a slab that has been planed to flatten it on both sides. Unless you have an industrial-sized woodshop with an equally industrial-sized planer, you want a slab that has been planed.

Then there are more finishing steps like sanding, adding epoxy or otherwise reinforcing any holes as needed, and coating it (oil, stain, etc). Sometimes you can do these yourself, sometimes they are offered for an additional charge. Know your skill set and choose appropriately. We were comfortable with doing most of these steps on our own if needed.

You can also get sets that are book matched. Basically these are consecutive slices from a single log that are joined to make a wider surface. They look like this:

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Source: Jewell Hardwoods

4. Don’t live in the Midwest
Kidding… although it would be easier to buy a HUGE tree chunk if we lived near HUGE trees. There aren’t many slab sellers in the Midwest so you’ll have to accept the fact that you won’t see your slab in person before it arrives. You’ll also want to budget some money for shipping.

5. Be flexible about material and size
Originally we were looking for black walnut, but realized that claro walnut (pictured above) lacked the lighter growth just below the bark. It’s a more consistent look and also more expensive. (Because of course we want the more expensive thing…) We realized pretty quickly that a slab of walnut – of any variety – was cost prohibitive.

That left us open to looking at different species, but none of the tones fit our vision. So we went back to claro walnut and looked for a bookmatched. We don’t love the look as much, but it was cheaper. We actually had a few we seriously considered, but when we were ready to buy after only a few days of consideration the pieces were gone. At this point we jumped the budget to a max of $3k.

Next we moved on to teak options from Origin Teak Cabinet Company.

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After weeks of emailing, there was a serious miscommunication about the budget (the updated budget) and we had to walk away.

Parota, a tropical tree, kept popping up as an option because of the massive slabs that come from this fast growing species. Originally we discounted it because the finished pieces looked so red. We went back to square one with our search, and unwilling to yield on the overall size, we did some research and discovered the redness comes mostly from the popular way to finish parota. So we turned back to the world wide web.

6. Google, Google again, Google some more
Slab vendors are on the interwebs, but only the biggest shops are good at SEO. Don’t stop at page 1 or page 20 of your search. Go deep down the list and if you start over, get more specific. Look for a particular type of wood (you’ll know what you want because you followed all the tips above) or search for vendors in a particular area. A friend recommended we look in Canada thanks to the favorable exchange rate.

Eventually we found the perfect vendor in CaliforniaWoodSlabs.com. This small company was established by two friends, one in Costa Rica where huge Parota trees grow, and one in California with warehouse space in Colorado and inkling to start a business. They offer sustainably harvested, kiln dried, sanded Parota slabs, and they include epoxy work on any imperfections for free. Remember why all these things are important? It means less work on our end. Basically these slabs are ready to finish.

Thanks to an old email chain, here are some slabs we actually considered:

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California Wood Slabs – G15551

This slab is a really nice size – very uniform width and fantastic length for the price. The grain pattern is very even, a little on the boring side.

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California Wood Slabs – G15612

Nice size, even a bit on the long side. Really pretty grain and wide enough to work.

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California Wood Slabs – J16302

This one stopped me in my tracks. This is the kind of uniquely grained, imperfect piece I wanted. Sadly, even with the upgraded budget, at $3775 it was a budget buster.

We settled on a slab that was perfectly sized for our space: 48″ x 120″ with enough visual interest in the grain and a price that actually came in below budget.

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So now we live with this beautiful piece of wood that is just quietly waiting for us to finish the dining room and give it a home. When the time comes we may need to host a table moving party. Who’s in?

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