Hallway Bookshelves and Banister

One of the interesting things about living in a house as you build it is seeing how your ideas change over time. Our original designs for the house didn’t include any bookshelves – we planned to keep the books all downstairs, and liked the clean look created by storing them out of sight.

But after two years living and working here (and long, cold Vermont winters giving us plenty of time to read) we started to miss having our collection close at hand, easy to peruse and lend out to friends. Of course in a small house, it’s not so easy to find a large section of wall space – almost everything upstairs was spoken for! Working with my father-in-law, we came up with a beautiful and sturdy design that would fit our books into one of the few available spots – the hallway by the bedrooms.

The shelves were assembled at the workshop and brought to the house as one whole piece.

This was also a good time to solve the problem of the open space over the down stairs, which was previously blocked by a piece of furniture in probably not the safest way possible. We built a frame and screwed it to the studs on both sides for security.

The center is another piece of remnant Ecoresin material, this time in a grey weave pattern.

This creates privacy for the guest bathroom, while still allowing light to pass through.

The final result, complete with books!

Living Room Built-In

A major upgrade to our living room came with the addition of our media center and built-in sofa. Since we’re major film buffs and love watching movies on our HD projector, the decision of how to set up the viewing area seating was not one that came easily. We knew the old futon had to go, but multiple visits to the furniture stores left us despairing that we would ever find a couch we could both agree on, that fit the space and didn’t cost a fortune. The obvious solution? Make it ourselves!

The first step was to build the media cabinet – an area to hold our DVD player, game systems and other equipment, with a pull-out shelf for the receiver to make it possible to reach the back and plug in more cables as needed.

We used maple plywood for the box and scrap Marmoleum for the top. That wall above (cleverly hidden by a blue curtain) will be finished with cypress paneling, eventually, and make for a nice display nook.

The cabinet fronts make use of beautiful figured maple – too unruly to rout for traditional furniture-making, but the perfect accent here – and Ecoresin panels, as seen in our doggy door post. Soft-closing Huwilift Strato hinges allow the doors to lift straight up and down – rather expensive, but also totally cool. Got to hide all those electronics in style –  and keeping the doors closed also cuts down on the hum.

There was some skepticism at first of the built-in sofa idea, but our next-door neighbor recently had a nice one made, so we knew it could be done in a classy way. To make sure we got the angle and height right, we mocked up a test section with some borrowed cushions, and adjusted until it felt comfortable.

Side tables with Marmoleum tops and Valchromat fronts were added on each end; this one is cut out on the base to divert air flow from the forced-air vent below.

Slats on the base give the seat a little bit of spring.

Angled to match our test section:

We found the fabric for a steal, about $100 for enough to make all the cushions, plus an ottoman and two seats adjacent to the front door. A local acquaintance made the cushions in her upholstery shop, perfectly constructed in less time than we could have imagined. And we got a custom piece for much less than we would have spent on a regular retail sofa!

Fall/Winter Project Review

Since last fall we’ve done a wide range of projects around the house, and we’ve got a lot planned for this year. Here’s a quick round-up of some of the things we’ve been working on:

Fall Landscaping – we planted cedars, “Prairie Fire” crabapple trees and lots of grass. Hopefully the grass will help with the spring runoff issues, and the Cedar Waxwings seem to love the crabapple fruit. It’s important to keep the native birds happy!

Front Steps – multicolored slate for entryway (with four concrete tiles we are testing for use on the path)

Once there was too much snow to work outside, we headed indoors and did some updates to the office. Since we’re both there all day, we want it to be nice!

Blue Valchromat drawer fronts, with one black piece just for kicks

(Fun fact – the small drawer is exactly the right width for a box of tissues. It just worked out that way.)

We finished off the back wall of the office with cypress paneling and a display shelf for our toys:

Pantry doors in the kitchen – the off-center split lines up with the red strip of Marmoleum. We’re planning to add spice racks on the inside.

Entryway stools, using the same fabric as our sofa (post coming soon), and black Valchromat bases. The bases are hollow for extra storage.

By now the snow is pretty much gone here, so it’ll be time for more outside projects. Good thing, too, because it makes it hard to walk the dog!

Kitchen Drawer Fronts

Our biggest finishing touch for the kitchen yet – the drawer fronts! As a “cosmetic” detail, these had been holding on our to-do list for a long time. Winter is a good time to get in the shop and get some projects done, though, so over the past two weekends we finally got to mill these up and install them.

As mentioned in our previous post, we chose to use Valchromat, a recyclable material superior to typical MDF, made of waste wood fibers and low-formaldehyde binder. As the color goes all the way through, it is easy to work with and doesn’t need to be painted – two coats of clear penetrating oil is sufficient to darken the color and increase water resistance.

Kitchen drawers “before”:

Installers at work:

Edge detail – angled so that drawers can be opened from top or bottom, no pulls necessary:


Interior Details: Caps

Kitchen window sill

Finishing the tops of interior walls and windowsills with drywall gives them a clean, modern look, but is a difficult process that adds greatly to the cost of plastering. Our compromise was to have the builders leave the edges unfinished, and we would add wood caps ourselves. This let us vary the materials by location; the kitchen windowsill above uses Valchromat, eco-friendly colored MDF that will coordinate with the drawerfronts.

The burnt poplar we installed on the office walls matches the floor grid:

Office Caps

as well as the stair railing (nail gun holes can be filled with a wax crayon):

Stair Rail Cap

In the bedrooms and bathrooms on the upper floor, cypress caps top an interior wall that completely covers the foundation. This creates a foam-insulated barrier around the cold concrete (as well as a handy shelf).

Bedroom Caps

Reclaimed Wood Stair Treads

Long time, no update! And no excuses – we haven’t been hibernating, just busy working on the house. Over the next few weeks we’ll be posting updates on our winter projects. First up: treads for the stairs adjacent to the office, made from scrap wood.

Inspired by the idea of a butcher block, but not wanting to deal with hundreds of little end-grain pieces, we selected 4-foot-long strips of wood leftover from other projects. These include white oak, red oak, douglas fir, birch, beech, cherry, maple, walnut (now I’m hungry). Cut to size and glued overnight, these were trimmed and sanded, and finished with two coats of clear penetrating oil to deepen the color.

After a week, the oil was followed by three coats of polyurethane, to prevent it rubbing off on anything, and the treads were ready to install. And we were more than ready for them – that construction wood has been here since the beginning!

Finished and installed:

Lighting Soffits

Master Bedroom Finished Soffit
Master Bedroom Finished Soffit

While I’ve been tackling the landscaping (slow-going on account of all the rain, plus an unfortunate stormwater runoff problem we need to manage), my husband and father-in-law have been working on the built-in lighting soffits for the entryway and both bedrooms. Inspired by a design from the book “The Not-So-Big House,” these wooden structures provide a feeling of coziness by lowering the ceiling height in those areas, while also camouflaging efficient fluorescent tubes for a gentle, indirect light. They also help us toward our minimum number of built-in fluorescent lights needed to earn the house’s Energy Star rating through Efficiency Vermont.


Entryway soffit: propping it up
Propping it up
Suspended soffit
Top View
Top view
Tubes wired in
Tubes wired in

 The lighting turned out to be a little intense with both tubes – we’ve rewired it with only a single T12 40-watt bulb in the center now.

Edge detail
Edge detail
From below

Guest room soffit:

Eventually, a similar system will be used in the main living space above the kitchen, office and home theater areas. Through the magic of Photoshop, we can see how that might look:

Office Lighting Soffit Mockup - Photoshopped

For now, we’ve had some fun with a collection of inexpensive paper lanterns from IKEA piled up above the pantry:

Spore type paper lanterns
Paper lantern experiment

Office Desk & Built-In – Part 1

Even though Rae and I both work from home, the office area was one of the least finished parts of the house, with a temporary Ikea-based desk (an adjustable leg system + MDF top) and coffee table as countertop stand-in.

Yuk! That MDF needs some sanding.

So, after 6+ months of working literally 2 feet from each other we decided to hit the workshop for some much needed desk building.

Measuring up

Plywood base

Marmoleum top (no surprises there)

Edge banding on all sides this time

Cutting materials for the built-in behind the desk

Drilling machine for adjustable shelving (so cool)

Cabinet assembly

Iron on edge banding this time

Finished carcass with reused drawers from a previous shop project

Dog Cubby

Jumping in

Before we built our house, our dog Archie slept in our room in his plastic travel crate – not the classiest feature for a modern home! We wanted a place for him to sleep that would be comfortable and out of the way, and also blend in with the decor.

Our solution was the “dog cubby” – a built-in closet in the bedroom that recedes right into the wall, occupying the same space as the kitchen pantry on the other side. 

Archie in cubby

It was made as a single unit at the shop, and pushed into a cutout in the wall: 

Drywall hole

We had originally planned to build a door, but found that Arch likes his bed so much that he won’t wander out at night.

Demonstrating the wrong way to use the dog cubby: