Creating Harmony

The top of the posts of at the Chinese gate are carved with symbols representing yin yang.

The top of the posts of at the Chinese gate are carved with symbols representing yin yang.

When a circa 1949 potato barn in Prineville, Oregon was under deconstruction, tranquility and harmony were not the words to describe the process.  Three years later, under the thoughtful eye and hand of woodworker, Andrew Scott, the reclaimed lumber from that potato barn is creating tranquility, harmony, and beauty in the Desert Rain landscape. Scott is using the reclaimed wood from the potato barn to build gates and fences that create privacy and frame the views on the site.  For the Desert Rain project, he wanted to represent the energy of the Living Building Challenge while respecting the environment, keeping a light footprint, and reflecting the nature of the project.

The raindrops carving representing yin - the feminine, softer side.

The raindrops carving representing yin – the feminine, softer side.

Scott wanted to soften the lines and hard edges of the structures with natural and organic imagery. His background in acupuncture and traditional Chinese medicine and the design of the project inspired his work.  Images and symbols are carved on the tops of the posts – some visible, some out of view unless one knows where to look. The Chinese gate that enters the courtyard is supported by posts appropriately carved with a sun symbol on the right and raindrops or a snowfield on the left.  The carvings represent yin yang, a primary guide to traditional Chinese medicine describing how contrary forces are complimentary and interconnected.  Simplified, the yang side is male, fire, light. The yin side is earth, female, softness, water. How fitting that the name ‘Desert Rain’ invokes the concept of yin yang – contradictory yet interdependent, as the house needs the sun for energy and the rain for its water source.

The Great Blue Heron is one of the posts adorned with local wildlife images.

The Great Blue Heron is one of the posts adorned with local wildlife images.

Scott often incorporates hummingbirds into his woodworking and there is one at Desert Rain. Images of other regional wildlife grace the posts -an osprey, rattlesnake, and Great Blue Heron. The resident deer are represented by deer tracks at the entrance.  The sense of discovery will be a delight to visitors as they tour the site and find art in the timbers and structures of the landscape.

The lichen on the weathered, barn boards may continue to live and grow bringing beauty and nature.

The lichen on the weathered, barn boards may continue to live and grow bringing beauty and nature.

Scott had not heard of the Living Building Challenge before Desert Rain. The biggest difference for him with this project was using reclaimed wood. He spent hours sorting through piles of 2” x 12”, weathered, barn boards searching for the right pieces that would sandwich the Forest Stewardship Council certified plywood on the privacy panels. He wanted wood with character; knots, grain, and lichen attached that will hopefully, continue to grow, bringing life and natural beauty to the boards. The challenges came with the FSC plywood that he could not have delivered to his shop as he is not FSC certified.  Since the fences and gates are near the last elements to be constructed in the landscape, Scott had a very long wait to begin his work.

Andrew Scott - woodworker, acupuncturist, and creator of harmony. (characters are upside down in this photo)

Andrew Scott – woodworker, acupuncturist, and creator of harmony. (characters are upside down in this photo)

When asked how he became part of the Desert Rain team, Scott said he is friends with Barb and Tom. They spent 18 days together when he rowed for them on a float trip through the Grand Canyon where he got to know them well.  He sees Desert Rain as a beautifully designed prototype to encourage other similar projects.  Scott said, ‘I honor Barb and Tom for their vision and their energy and willingness to spend the money with this project. I am most fortunate to have been involved with this.’

The Chinese character for tranquility is on one of the entrance posts, the other, is harmony.

The Chinese character for tranquility is on one of the entrance posts, the other, is harmony.



Scott appreciates the artistic license he was given to be inspired by the site, the design, and the project.  The top curve of the entrance gate gracefully curves upward. The curve is the same radius as the Miro wall that flows through the structure and into the courtyard interconnecting beauty and design. The posts that create the arch are carved with Chinese characters chosen by Scott for their significance to Desert Rain. Everyone who follows the path through the entrance gate will be embraced by Andrew Scott’s artistry and inspiration, into the realm of tranquility and harmony.

The entrance arch curve reflects the radius of the Miro wall and creates an artistic frame.

The entrance arch curve reflects the radius of the Miro wall framing the beauty within. The Chinese characters for tranquility and harmony are on top of the arch posts.


A House becomes Home

Front Door

The construction door is gone.  In its’ place is a beautiful, reclaimed wood, front door that opens to say ‘welcome home’ to Desert Rain owners, Barbara Scott and Tom Elliott. It has been a long journey from their idea and dream of building an extreme green home to this week of moving in. After nearly five years of dreaming, planning, purchasing property, designing, permits, redesigning and construction – Desert Rain and the adjacent accessory dwelling unit are ready for occupancy.

The walkway and Miro wall create a guide to the front door.

The walkway and Miro wall create a guide to the front door.



Ground-breaking began in August 2011. Striving to meet the stringent guidelines and the seven petals of the Living Building Challenge created hurdles and delays far beyond what an owner or contractor would encounter with traditional construction. The Desert Rain team has embraced the challenge and found the answers to keep the project moving forward to completion of a livable home.

Tom, Lee, and Anna tackle another trailer load.

Tom, Lee, and Anna tackle another trailer load.

One obstacle remains before Barb and Tom can begin the one year auditing phase that will monitor the water, energy and air quality systems to show that Desert Rain meets the LBC criteria for certification. The blackwater system (waste water treatment from toilets and the dishwasher) has not yet been approved. Plans for the system were in the process of design and engineering well before construction began.  After many months of research, design, and working with the regulatory agencies involved in permits a proposal for the blackwater system should be ready to submit this week. (Stay tuned for more information in a future blog). In the meantime, Tom and Barb will be utilizing city systems that were required to be in place for the initial permit process.

Tom and Anna carry the infamous 'blue bucket'. The bucket holds thousands of nails that were saved from the deconstruction of the original two houses. Barb hopes to see the nails used in an art project.

Tom and Anna carry the infamous ‘blue bucket’. The bucket holds thousands of nails that were saved from the deconstruction of the original two houses. Barb hopes to see the nails used in an art project.

Living in a net zero water and net zero energy home will require a commitment to lifestyle that Barb and Tom believe they can embrace. With the bleeding edge design, construction, and systems in place Desert Rain is not an ordinary house. The mechanical room, monitoring equipment, solar panels, and technology are highly visible – a daily reminder to be conscious of meeting the LBC requirements.


Living a normal life within the parameters of the LBC may be a challenge. In a recent interview with the  Bend Bulletin, Barb said, “We don’t know how this works because we’ve never done it, nor has anyone else”. Barb and Tom are confident they will find the balance between the mechanical and technical elements that are imperative to a functioning house and the LBC, and the comfort and beauty that will make Desert Rain House their home.

A lone chair exemplifies the activity of moving. Where does it go? Where is its' place?

A lone chair exemplifies the activity of moving. Where is its’ place? Where is its’ home within the home?


Barb stops to excitedly see a favorite item being unloaded.

Barb stops her moving of boxes to excitedly see a favorite item being unloaded.

With the chaos of moving well underway, Barb and Tom are turning house to home.  The harmony of home and extreme green building will be created when: a favorite wooden salad bowl finds a place in the Forest Stewardship Council certified cabinet; a steaming cup of tea waits on the salvaged, walnut countertop; an old farm table from Montana reflects the sunlight streaming through the triple pane, energy-efficient glass doors; treasured art pieces grace the walls that are covered with American Clay. When the view from each window becomes familiar; when shoes are parked in the entryway; when friends and family are welcomed with warm hugs; when music and laughter flow to the ceilings; when sense of place brings a sense of sanctuary – Desert Rain House will no longer be a project. Desert Rain House will become –home.

The beauty of the FSC wood cabinets, the salvaged walnut shelf, and a well-known salad bowl create 'home'.

The beauty of the FSC wood cabinets, the salvaged walnut shelf, and a well-known salad bowl create ‘home’.

Congratulations Tom and Barb!   May your pioneering spirit, your commitment to values, your belief in the Living Building Challenge, and your love of earth and life – bring you HOME.



The Mudroom Sink

What we don’t see – the design time, the plans, the plan changes, the research and the collaboration between designers, builders, and Barb and Tom.

I’ve recently been sorting through hundreds of photos taken at Desert Rain from project initiation to the current phase of the construction. The progress from the deconstruction of the original homes on the site, to the Desert Rain structure that is beginning to look like a home, is documented with the visuals of the photos.  It is an impressive transformation to see the empty site become reality as each phase of construction adds an element.

Some of the many interior design elements, each one must go through the ‘behind the scenes’ process.

The building process is very much a layering or ‘trickle’ down effect.  One element depends on another. The timing is not always precise as builders may be waiting on design plans or one sub-contractor may be waiting on another. That sub may be waiting on a supplier or the material may be in the process of ‘approval’.  Unlike a traditional building project, Desert Rain is building towards the goal of Living Building Challenge certification.  That means every material and element from nails and glue, to lumber, plumbing pipe, windows, and roofing, must be researched and approved.  ML Vidas is the LBC and LEED consultant for Desert Rain.  ML has a spreadsheet of EVERYTHING that is going to be used. She tracks what it is, where it is being used in the project, who is the manufacturer, what raw materials are in it, and the source of those materials.

The design team continues to work on specifications and collaborate with the builders and with Tom and Barb.  Every item must go through a process. I recently saw an e-mail regarding ‘the mudroom sink’.

Step One in the process that begins the dialogue that leads to the selection and installation of the mudroom sink.

Something that basic, still requires the time and effort of one or more of the ‘team behind the scenes’.  That sink must be selected for design and fit, researched for LBC standards, ‘vetted’ by ML and approved by Barb and Tom.  E-mails and phone calls go back and forth. Time is spent. Decisions are made and eventually the sink will be installed.  When we walk into the mud-room, ‘voila’, we will see the sink. What we won’t see are the details that put that sink in place.  What we won’t see are the team players that did their due diligence. What we won’t see are the choices to be made, the e-mails to be answered, or the meetings at the drawing board.

One of the many collaborative meetings.

We can go to the property today and see the pieces in place; from foundation to framing, windows to roofline, solar panels to the cistern and all the other elements that are bringing Desert Rain closer to home.  Talking about the visual standpoint of the project, Kevin Lorda, on the Timberline Construction build team described the ‘front end of things with excavation, concrete, and framing, as sort of, the lion’s share of the building process.’  What we visualize today are all those elements of the ‘lion’s share’ and more. What we don’t see is the enormous amount of design, research, discussions, and decisions that have happened behind the scenes so those elements are in place.

One small detail – the downspout and copper connector.

Every time I visit the site to document what is new, talk to the builders, and take photos, I am amazed at the progress and what I see. Thanks to the mud-room sink, I am reminded to be equally amazed at what I don’t see.


Tom and Barb in the process of making another decision.

Taking Shape: Desert Rain Progress in Pictures

Starting the framing. Mid February, 2012.

More walls go up. February 2012.

Snow day. February 2012.

Trusses are delivered. March 1, 2012.

March 8, 2012

Another snow day. March 21, 2012

Window areas were temporarily covered to keep out moisture. April 1, 2012

Getting ready for Earth Day tours. April 20, 2012

Roofing begins, as seen on the right. May 8, 2012

Roofing panels installed on south-facing surfaces. May 14, 2012

The view from the west. May 16, 2012

The view from the east. May 16, 2012


Happy May Day!

A gorgeous day out at Desert Rain today!

Reading the Signs

There’s a lot of curiosity about Desert Rain. Much of that is because of how it’s being built and the Living Building Challenge standard that it strives to achieve. A home in the middle of town that uses no water or energy resources other than those that are available to it on site—well, it raises some eyebrows.

It is, without a doubt, unique.

It gets its fair share of drive-bys and walk-bys—people who have heard about it and want a peek at what’s going on. Whether they approach the property on its east side or its west side, they’re met with a large wooden sign that clearly states the mission of the home:

The Desert Rain sign on the west side of the property (Shasta).

The Desert Rain design and build processes have been remarkably transparent. Tom and Barb are clear about their intent to share their experience and the information they gather as they go. By sharing, they hope to educate people about sustainable design and construction, as well as perhaps inspire others to take on their own Living Building Challenge or to incorporate some of its philosophy into their own homes.

The sign, and its mate on the east end of the property, are part of that open approach.

After Tom and Barb came up with the idea for the sign Barb mentioned it to her brother, Kevin Scott. Kevin is an engineer by trade, but he is also a talented wood and metal craftsman. When I asked him why he built the sign he smiled and said, “Oh, Barb said they needed a sign.” Bear in mind: Kevin is an engineer and craftsman, but he is not a sign-maker. In fact, he had never made a sign before. And in terms of signs, it’s doubtful he could have started with anything more complex. But when he heard that his sister and his brother-in-law needed a sign he jumped at the chance. What he created is remarkable.

First, Tom and Barb sent Kevin a PDF of the sign’s design. “I took that PDF and re-drew it in AutoCAD. I used a program called MasterCAD to cut it.” He already had salvaged hardwood ready for the job. “The wood was leftover from a job that I did. I bought it from a Mennonite lumber yard in Ohio, and had some leftover. You can see some patterns in the wood, like here [pointing to a darker vein]; that’s called spalding, which means the wood had started to rot. It gives it unique coloration and patterns sought after by woodworkers. So I thought it would be perfect for the sign.”

The wood Kevin Scott would use for the Desert Rain sign. Plans for the sign, which he re-drew in AutoCAD, sit on top of the wood.

As you can see in the above photo, the wood came in different widths. “The wood was all twisted, and I had to form it down to sizes. Then, even the width of each wood piece is different. So I had to line those pieces up just right so the joints fell between the text just right for the cutting machine. And it matched up well,” said Kevin.

The wood for the sign, after being straightened and trimmed by Kevin.

After the pieces were straightening, trimmed and sanded, Kevin was able to key, or joint, them together.

A piece of sign board with a groove cut into its length. It was in this way that Kevin was able to join the many strips to make one large 5′ x 8′ sign.

Once the individual pieces of wood were jointed together, Kevin was able to begin inscribing the text for the sign. Or, more accurately, the lines and arcs. “It’s text, but in my world it’s lines and arcs,” he said. “Because my computer numerical control [CNC] machines can’t cut text. My machine doesn’t see letters, it only sees lines and arcs. So I had to take everything they had and create lines and arcs with it.”

Cutting the lines and arcs that would form the text for the Desert Rain sign.

What I found amazing is that the cutting tool did not move during the process. Instead it was the table that moved. Kevin would attach sections of the sign to the table, and the table would move to his line-and-arc specifications. The cutting tool just moved up and down as the table danced beneath it. He was limited by his table’s size capability, however, so could only cut three boards at a time. “My machine cuts 15” x 30”. So, I had to do it in thirds for every three boards, so it took some time.”

This photo shows how Kevin worked with three boards at a time, and how the text had to be laid out just right so that it would fit in between the board joints.

But over weeks the sign came together. And once it was together he had to take it apart again to ship it from his home in Colorado to Bend. It made for a more compact package. He then met up with the sign in Bend and reassembled it in town. Secured to a steel frame made in Bend, the sign now sits firmly in place, inviting passers-by to learn more about the Desert Rain house. Kevin, who was in Bend visiting Tom and Barb this past weekend, talked with me about the sign while we visited the site. I asked him if he had put his name on the sign–an artist’s signature. “Oh, no,” he said. “I don’t need that.”

But now everyone can imagine the signature at the bottom: Crafted by Kevin Scott.

Kevin Scott talks about the many steps involved in creating the Desert Rain sign.

It’s good to be able to lean on family. Barb and her brother Kevin during a recent picnic lunch on the Desert Rain site.

So Many Changes in So Few Days

Desert Rain as seen from from the western edge of the lot. Plywood temporarily covers some window spaces, while sheeting covers others. April 1, 2012.

I made my way out to the Desert Rain site this afternoon after being out of town for a week. And what a difference seven days make! The cisern’s exterior walls are partially formed.

The cistern continues to take shape. April 1, 2012.

On the northern half of the cistern, where the interior wall forms have yet to be placed, you can see the reinforcing steel rebar that will give the walls additional tensile strength.

The home is now completely covered in plywood siding (FSC-certified and free of red list materials), except of course for those areas in which there will be doors and windows.

The curve of the interior “Miró wall” is seen in the foreground. At the back, the first section of the wall has been framed. April 1, 2012.

Inside, the Miró wall is also taking shape. This curved wall runs the entire east-west length of the home; in fact, it runs through the home and into the outdoor spaces, including a patio area devoted to memorializing a Ponderosa that once stood on the site (the large tree was removed in compliance with Living Building Challenge standards and is being milled in Tumalo for use in the home). Visually, the wall brings the outide in, and the inside out. Designed by Tozer Design Studio, this unique element was inspired the work of Joan Miró. “I had this idea of just this paint brush stroke across a white canvas—an arcing stroke,” said architectural designer Al Tozer. “That paint brush stroke was tied into the Ponderosa memorial with a secondary paintbrush stroke that overlapped the first then wrapped around the geometry of the Ponderosa memorial. Now, on a blank sheet of paper, it almost looked like you had the start of a Miró painting. That creativity and geometry was imbedded into the house, and the house is wrapped around that organizing element. Now it’s become the spine of the home.”

This landscaping layout shows how the Miró wall takes shape outside of the home—note the area between the main home and the accessory dwelling unit (“decomposed granite patio” and “existing ponderosa memorial”). The wall will wrap around the memorial tree. April 1, 2012.

Tozer’s Miró wall was not a part of the home’s original design. It only came to be after the first design was shelved when Tom and Barbara decided to strive for Living Building Challenge 2.0 certification. This is a beautiful testament to the remarkable things that come about with change—even when the change is difficult or painful. Says Tozer, “When you’re faced with the idea that something isn’t working, that’s pretty intense. Then you think, we have a blank sheet of paper. Let’s come up with something fresh and new. It’s fun to grab hold of something a client might have said or shared … and then let the creativity bubble up and try to build that into a new design. It’s really been fun.”

The memorial tree in the yard of Desert Rain. April 1, 2012.