The Art of Decision

How many decisions are made during the process of building a home? I don’t have a number but I know it is many. Designing and building Desert Rain, the compound of structures, and mechanical systems and meeting the Living Building Challenge criteria,  stretches those decisions by leaps and bounds. I recently listened in on a design meeting for the proposal of a new structure on the compound. In the three plus years the project has been underway there have been a series of design changes as building for LBC certification has many unknowns and is a ‘learn as we go’ process.

design meeting

Barb, Tom, Al Tozer , and James Fagan take a look at the preliminary design for the new structure, Desert Lookout.

The plan to this point has been to keep the garage from the original structures on the site and remodel it to create Desert Station – a studio space. With the waste water system still pending approval there is the need to build a composting toilet facility. In the usual team effort that keeps Desert Rain evolving, the new concept is to build a structure that will do more of what meets the needs of the project and Barb and Tom’s lifestyle. Al Tozer, designer,  presented the preliminary concept for the new structure – Desert Lookout. Included in the design is a garage, an upstairs unit that could be office or dwelling, a fitness space, and the composting toilet facility. The design is functional, aesthetic, and may have some dramatic elements. The decisions begin.

Interior choices - colors, knobs, tiles, materials- tough decisions.

Interior choices – colors, knobs, tiles, materials- tough decisions.

Considerations in the decision process factor in the cost, time-line, aesthetics, function, materials, and how it can meet the LBC standards. The water petal has been a significant challenge to meet. The permit is still pending for the water system. The city required that the site is hooked to city water and sewer.  Early in the process the decision was made to plumb the structures for both conventional and alternative systems. There has been discussion about hooking the Accessory Dwelling Unit to the sewer.  That would result in losing the LBC Water Petal; Barb and Tom are reluctant to let that happen – a tough decision.  The big choice about Desert Lookout: keep it functional and affordable, sacrifice drama for costs, or make a statement. Tom reminded everyone that, ‘ The whole home is a demonstration project. Every aspect needs to demonstrate something innovative and it also needs to make an aesthetic statement’.  More tough decisions.

Gabriel Dansky with Dansky Handcrafted, Tom and Barb look at the cabinets.

Gabriel Dansky with Dansky Handcrafted, Tom and Barb look at the cabinets and discuss options for the exterior finish.






As the large decisions loom there are ongoing, daily details that need answers; choosing fixtures, appliances, cabinets, doorknobs, wall textures and colors, how many shelves, art niche or storage cabinet, – the list is long. In addition to making choices every product and material used must be vetted through ML Vidas, a sustainable architect and consultant for Desert Rain and LBC compliance. The spread sheet for that process is growing.

American Clay plaster walls  - Earth, and the custom Manzanita on the Miro wall.

American Clay plaster walls – Earth, and the custom Manzanita on the Miro wall.

While Barb and Tom and the design/build team collaborate on new questions, work continues with the elements that have completed the decision-making and approval process. Inside is seeing more finishes.


The American Clay plaster is nearing completion, cabinet bases are being installed, and the reclaimed wood is in place on the ceiling and trim. The exterior of the site is currently under siege as trenches are abundant laying infrastructure for the rainwater catchment, gray-water, and waste-water lines. When the excavation moves out of the courtyard construction on the exterior Miro wall and other landscaping features can begin. The exterior plaster will be applied to the structures, and the old garage will be deconstructed. As many materials as possible from the garage will be reclaimed and used. Jim Fagan, general contractor with Timberline said,’we are wrapping our arms around all these elements, staying within a time-line’.
With so many questions unanswered, options to ponder, choices to make; many of us would simply give up or collapse . Barb and Tom keep forging forward. Continuing to embrace this innovative and conceptual project, Barb stated, ‘this is a learning environment and still very much our passion’. Perhaps in the process of creating Desert Rain, Barb and Tom have learned the ‘art of decision’.


One wall, one word, one decision – done.

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.

Collaboration, C-O-L-L-A-B-O-R-A-T-I-O-N

We’ve all heard the saying, ‘it takes a village’.  A recent project here at Desert Rain is a living example of how this concept works; how we get from here – to there.   Barb had an idea. She wanted someplace on site to display photos of people on the project, the seven ‘Petals’ of the Living Building Challenge, the Red List, and maybe some bulletin items.  The first go around was, well, let’s say – rustic.  A piece of scrap board was leaned against the wall of the existing garage. The Red List was written on paper and pinned to the board.  The Seven Petals were printed on paper and pinned to the board. Photos were printed and pinned to the board.

The original photo board after the Red List had been rescued from the alley.

For awhile, this board served the purpose. Then wind, rain, and sun did their damage.  The Red List was found down the alley, a little worse for wear. It was stapled back on the board.

Barb said to Kelly, “we need a better solution to the photo board”.  Kelly had an idea; a bulletin board/kiosk using some of the reclaimed windows to protect the photos and paper.  Kelly talked to Tom. They searched through the windows and found some that matched.  Tom said, ‘talk to Jim about making this happen’.  Kelly met Jim on site to discuss placement of the kiosk and a rough plan of what was needed.  Jim had an idea; use some of the leftover roofing material to add a small overhang to further protect the window.  Jim passed the idea and project on to carpenter, Tivan.  Meanwhile, back at the office, Allyson was finding team photos in the computer files and having them printed.  Within a week the new kiosk appeared on site.  Built entirely with reclaimed lumber and windows and scrap roofing material, the kiosk reflects the elements of the other structures on site.

The kiosk at home near the Desert Rain informational sign.

It is beautiful and functional, with the right amount of rustic.  Though the kiosk is a small piece of the larger picture, it effectively  demonstrates the process of progress at the building site.  Ideas form.  Communication begins.  The ‘village’ intermingles.  Ideas take shape as each person involved contributes their knowledge and skills to the process.  The end result; dreams and ideas become reality.  There is a kiosk on site with photos and information.  There is a foundation, framed walls, a roof, windows, doors, solar panels, water systems, heating systems, a cistern, landscaping, lighting, flooring, cabinets… eventually, a house is built.  The house becomes a home.  Working together, the ‘village’ moves the project from there to here.  How do we spell collaboration?  T-E-A-M   D-E-S-E-R-T   R-A-I-N.

‘It takes a village’ – some of the Desert Rain Team photos.