Saturday, August 25, 2007

When I post to this blog it takes quite a long time. This post has taken about 4 hours including writing time, editing photos, and getting it posted. I really try hard to get it right, but, for the life of me, even after a year and a half of doing this. I haven't figured out how to reverse the order in which things post. Chronologically the last thing I post appears at the top of the page, appearing to be the first. It just would take too much planning and time to do it all backwards.

Both of these shots were taken on a picnic Matt and Amy, Regie and Eric, their friends Ruben and Maggie, and I went on with all our dogs (Bear, Buddy, Spencer, Maya, Mr. Dickens, and Abner) up at Craggy Gardens last Sunday. The temperature is generally about 10 to 15 degrees cooler there than in Asheville so at this time of year, if we are taking the dogs, it is a great place to go. As you might guess, Abner and I had a great time. The shot below shows me in my favorite state. . .surrounded by dogs.
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I didn't take too many pictures at the wedding, partly because I was involved, and partly because Jay was taking a couple thousand that would undoubtedly be better than mine. The above picture was taken of one of the hookahs that Jason and Maren set up at the house for the Morroccan themed after party. As illicit as this looks, the hookahs were outfitted with some kind of sweet aromatic tobaccco. The guy in the shot below who is facing the hookah and looks so serious is Laurance, who is engaged to marry Jim Cardin's daugter Loren. How'd these kids get this old?
This is the "cabin" Jay and I had to find in the middle of the night. It actually was a pretty nice place, just a little hard to locate and absolutely bereft of any linens.
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Lori turned 40 a few weeks ago and she wanted very few things at her birthday party. One requirement though was that she wanted to play with little pigs. Jay had to drive almost to South Carolina to pick up two young piglets to satisfy her wish. The farmer told him he could get his money back if he returned them in good condition. Lori is a vegetarian so this wasn't too risky a proposition. She was, as they say, in hog heaven. You will note that in the last shot, she is playing with the little male piggy's tail and he is responding by getting ready to excrete a nice little piglet turd on her pants. This happened right after I snapped this shot.

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I have discovered that I really like trellises and arbors that are lushly covered. The one above is in the walled garden that has both grape vines and a wide variety of squash growing on it. Below is the long wisteria arbor below the bowling green.

My fascination with strange flora continues. This gigantic spiky flowers are abundant around the Inn at this time of year. Anyone know what they are? Below is a group having a lesson on Segways prior to a 3 hour tour. This is a new feature Biltmore added this year and according to my friends at the Outdoor Center, it is a huge success. Regie, Eric, Matt, Amy and I are all thinking it would be fun to do once. We have all covered the route they take you on dozens (or in my case hundreds) of times on foot, but the Segways look like fun.
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Above is the view of some of the fields in the functioning farm area of Biltmore. This is one of our favorite routes because as we continue up this hill and around a bend, we enter dense forest. The shade is welcome for walking at this time of year.
These things are some kind of weed that I would really like to grow. They are like triffids. They start fairly small, grow into rather large furry plants with thick leaves, and then send up this huge 5 foot tall spike with yellow flowers. Very cool.

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The above shot was the last one I got as the buck scampered away. This actually belonged with the next group of photos. The folks below were on one of the horse trails beside the lagoon. Abner was also frustrated since this was only a few minutes after not getting up close to the deer.

The photo above is the stretch of path I mentioned in the text for this month. This was a place where we almost went deaf from the sound of the Cicadas. Below is one of the multitude of groundhogs that we see everywhere at Biltmore. This one was particularly brazen and didn't move until we were about 15 feet away.
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Abner and I were out hiking today and spotted this buck. Initially he didn't realize we were close but Abner started whining out of frustration at not being able to run toward him. Once he realized we were there he turned and looked at us for a minute, and then, as soon as we moved a bit, he scampered off. There seem to be more of these guys than usual this year.

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August has been hot and positively sultry. When Abner and I were walking at Biltmore the morning we passed a familiar shady grove of large oaks and were almost deafened by the sound of cicadas. They seem more abundant this year than in the past summers, or at least more vocal. The weather, though, has been rather extreme. Asheville has apparently broken a record with 16 or 17 days over 90 degrees this month. The predictions are that the heat will finally break next week but I will believe it when it happens. It has been humid with very little rain. The result is fog almost every morning. This is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the haze is one of the things I like least about the summer in the Blue Ridge. I really love the long distance views we get during the rest of the year and miss during the summer, but it is kind of eerie and wonderful to get up every morning to this ethereal fog hovering over the ground. Since it has been so warm, Abner and I have taken to walking early to avoid the heat and often stroll through the odd pocket of mist in particularly fetid areas. There are some rather boggy areas on the Estate that we have come to enjoy at this time of year.

It has been about a month since I last blogged and a busy one it has been. I have been racing the clock trying to get everything done, including pricing, in order to submit my plans to the City the week after Labor Day so Jason Marshall, the contractor who will be building the new house, can start grading and excavating by the last week of September. This hasn’t been easy. Things haven’t gone quite as smoothly at any level of progress as I had hoped (what else is new?). The latest stumbling block is getting a proposal from the company from whom I am hoping to buy SIPs panels. For those of you uninitiated in the current trends in construction, SIPs construction substitutes Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) for conventional 2x4 or 6 framing, sheathing and insulating. The idea is that the panels, while costing more, are prepared in a factory and delivered to your building site essentially as a kit. The manufacturers of the system I am hoping to use claim that they have had houses the size of mine completely assembled in 7 days. What this means is that instead of spending probably 2 months framing, sheathing, and insulating the outside walls and roof, we might be able to do it in a week. It is a bit of a risk since there is no guarantee as to how much time (and consequently money) it will save, and the materials are more expensive. What you are promised though is an R-value (insulation coefficient) of 40 for a 2x6 wall rather than an R-value of 19 with conventional construction. This sounds good to me after about two weeks of 90-degree weather.

The problem I am having though, is that they keep promising to provide me with a proposal, and it keeps not appearing. The latest promise was that it would be in my hands last night but it didn’t happen. Very disappointing and frankly not exactly the kind of performance that inspires confidence in the company’s ability to produce the job.

On Tuesday Jason and I decided to go to Atlanta to go hunting for cabinets, tile, plumbing fixtures and hardware, and sundry other items for the house. Brian tagged along just because he thinks he will be more actively involved in the development end of his and Jason’s business and he thought it would be educational. Matt Vande decided to come as well. Matt is not as far along with the design process for his and Amy’s house as I am but he thought this would be a good first pass. Besides, as an architect, he really has been involved in commercial and institutional projects rather than houses, so he has to educate himself a bit about his choices.

The trip down, in Brian’s Volvo, went without a hitch. We arrived in Atlanta at the Design Center close to 11:00 in the morning and the temperature was already up to about 94 or 95 when we got out of the car. It was like climbing into a sauna. For those of you have missed the experience of Atlanta in the heat of summer, the temperatures are frequently in the high 90s or low 100s with humidity in the 90% or higher range. It is kind of like summer in Sacramento with double the humidity. The shock of getting out of an air-conditioned car into this climate cannot be described.

We hurried into the building and headed first to the Ann Sacks Showroom so I could look at tile and various plumbing goodies. I think the other guys were all a little overwhelmed by what is available. Prices were also a bit overwhelming. I found a few things I think I cannot live without but will wait and see what kind of quotes I get.

We had a nice lunch in a cafĂ© in the building and then went to a Kitchen Studio to look at Downsview Cabinets. By the time we finished there it was about 1:30. We headed outside to get in the car to head a block or two to the next showroom. By this time the temperature was around 100 and feeling lethal. We weren’t in the car long enough for it to cool us off when we pulled into the parking lot for Renaissance Tile and Bath. For those of you who have never seen this place (and I would guess that is pretty much everyone who reads this blog) it is a huge showroom of high end plumbing fixtures and hardware, hard surfaces, and other goodies. It is an absolute cornucopia but a dangerous place if you don’t have much self control in the spending department. We spent probably another 45 minutes there lusting after various must-haves. My big problem there is that I really want a faucet for my kitchen sink that is made by Dornbracht and is obscenely expensive. I get a pretty good discount on this stuff but it is still a lot of money and hard to justify for a faucet. . .even one I use several times a day.

From there we had to drive to the Bulthaup cabinet showroom located at 8th and Peachtree. Now as experienced Atlanta visitors know, pretty much everything is named Peachtree something-or-other. The ADAC, for example, is on Peachtree Hills Avenue. Bulthaup though is practically downtown and is on the actual Peachtree Street. On the drive there from the Design Center, the temperature having climbed to 102, Brian’s Volvo finally rebelled and the air conditioning simply stopped working. This was not a very happy event. Four men from the mountains in long pants and real shirts were not equipped for Atlanta in August without AC. We parked, pumped coins into the meter (6 minutes for a quarter if you can believe it) and raced for the showroom door. Sure enough the temperature inside was probably about 72 and was a great relief. Unfortunately for us, the designer for that Bulthaup location was out on an appointment so our visit there was pretty brief.

When we got back into the car to head north on Peachtree toward Buckhead where the Waterworks showroom is located, we were all greatly relieved to discover that the AC was back on the job. Well it was for the first 7 minutes of the drive anyway. Part way up Peachtree, in reasonably heavy mid-week Atlanta traffic, the thing just gave up again. Once again, by the time we found the parking lot for Waterworks, we were all dying to get out of the car and into conditioned space.

Waterworks, for those of you who don’t go shopping for high-end plumbing, is a remarkable showroom. They have a few dozen locations around the country. The company was founded to provide competition for the pricey European plumbing manufacturers who have marketed to the US for as long as I practiced architecture. Much of what they carry is still manufactured in Europe (Italy mostly) but exclusively for Waterworks. Their products are supposed to be more user friendly and installer friendly than some of the better Euro lines.

I had wandered into the Charleston showroom late last spring when Mary Anne Payne and Jan Geiger were here. It was clear that there was plenty of product that would appeal to me, but at the time, I was really early into the process of designing my house and didn’t own the land yet. Since I had guests and it was late anyway, I didn’t pick much while there but figured I could come back and look in earnest.

So the Atlanta showroom is a little closer and was in close proximity to a whole lot of stuff I needed to see and consequently that was where we headed. It was cool in the showroom, which was abuzz with employees all seemingly very busy, but we appeared to be the only customers. . .just the way I like it. I had pre-arranged a tentative appointment with Jeff Boetig, the very agreeable manager of the showroom. Between the cool temperature, abundant bottled water, a large shopping list, and Jeff’s competent friendly help, we spent about an hour and a half there choosing what I hope will be all of my plumbing hardware (with the possible exception of shower heads but that is another story). We all grabbed a last water bottle for the road, got back into the car, and headed to IKEA to look at cabinetry.

IKEA is in a newly re-developed area in West Central Atlanta. The area itself is a little frightening for it’s scale and somewhat monolithic “theme park” appearance. Block after block of chic 4 or 5 story housing projects, each indistinguishable from the previous, punctuated by a miniature version of the Arch de Triomphe for no apparent reason, all lead up to IKEA. The store, like most in the chain, is gigantic and probably deserves it’s own freeway or at least a spur and off ramp. Getting into the building isn’t that hard if you follow the signage. You arrive in a cavernous multi-level parking garage. It is so huge that we drove for a while before even spotting the brilliant cadmium yellow entry pavilion that promises access to the store above. We parked, thankful for the shade (the AC once again had only worked for a couple minutes), and headed up the escalators into the store. Jason, Brian and I had been to this IKEA before but I think going there and then not coming back for many months is equivalent to a mother forgetting the excruciating pain of childbirth. The only way your brain would let you repeat the act of visiting IKEA is to make you forget how truly awful it is.

We arrived at a seemingly central spot with numerous yellow and black uniformed greeters waiting to ambush us as we approached the main escalator up to the big sales floor above. Brian and Matt wisely headed to the Men’s Room to relieve themselves prior to the mounting an attack on the main floor. Jason and I lounged in some remarkably unattractive, dirty, seedy brown leather seating that just screamed, “Get your Cooties Here”. Surprisingly, these pieces, while not as expensive as the leather chairs I am accustomed to from my years in the design industry, were not exactly the cheap bargains one expects from IKEA. Besides. I am convinced they were covered in the boogers of 11-year-old boys forced to accompany their mothers to this hellhole.

Eventually Brian and Matt returned and we all headed upstairs. The interesting thing about IKEA stores is that they are set up in such a manner that, no matter what you are there to look at, you cannot make it in and out without walking literally past every single object they have for sale. We ran the gauntlet of repulsive furniture and fabrics intended for the bedrooms of young Atlantans and their college bound brethren. I felt like I was having an acid flashback to a Marimekko showroom in the late 60s. Orange, chartreuse and hot pink seem to have made quite the comeback at IKEA. It took a few minutes to get past all the stuff I desperately didn’t want to look at before we made it to the large Kitchen cabinet and appliance section. There were quite a few black-and-yellow uniformed IKEAns working in this department but seemed all of them appeared to be deeply engrossed in some activity aside from helping us. Eye contact was assiduously avoided. When I finally went up to one guy who was very engrossed in something on his computer screen (which by the way, he pivoted to a position where I couldn’t see it when I moved around his desk. . .could it be that IKEA even makes porn?) and asked him some questions point blank, he was oddly unwilling or unable to help. He just kept pointing to the work area where there were probably about 10 computer stations where one could sit down and design an IKitchen. I explained that I had my laptop on which there were all the drawings of my kitchen and asked if he could help me figure out how I could use their system and still have my design work.

Without making those of you who have read this much endure any more details, suffice it to say, this guy was not up to the task. Eventually, I left with a couple of catalogs and price lists, pretty much left to my own devices.

Getting out of the store is pretty much more of the same as going in. You cannot exit the way you came in. The escalators only go one way so you are forced to walk the entire remainder of the main store level, descend to the next level down, walk through more store, then through the vast warehouse portion (in which, I am convinced, they could assemble the space shuttle and solid fuel boosters) finally to the check out area where you receive some withering looks from the cashiers when they realize you are escaping with no purchases (Matt did buy a duvet so they let us out since we were with him), past the food area in case you want to consider buying a little gravalax or herring to munch on in the un-air-conditioned car on your way home, and finally to still another bright yellow circulation pod similar to the one through which entered this labyrinth in the first place. I never did see the birthing room or the crematorium, but I am certain they were there. Don’t ever go to IKEA if you can avoid it. It is surreal and not in the good way. Take acid instead.

By this time it was getting close to 6:30 so we jumped back into the Volvo and headed downtown to an undetermined eating place Jason was sure he had seen earlier in the day.
When we made it back to 8th St, the furthest point South we had been all day, and had not found the elusive restaurant of Jason’s memory, we decided that the attractive restaurant on the corner next door to the now closed Bulthaup showroom looked just perfect. Besides, there was that 102-degree heat without a conditioned car thing.

The restaurant is called Eno. It is at the corner of Peachtree and 8th, and for those of you who find yourselves in downtown Atlanta and want to have a perfectly nice dinner without having to look too hard, try this place. I had a very good pasta dish that had a little too much olive oil but was flavorful and cooked perfectly. They have a wonderful wine list (since the other three members of my part were all ordering beer, I chose from the wines by the glass) that is reasonably priced. The servers are attentive and well-informed about both the food and the wine.

Some guy on a bicycle went down in the intersection during the salad course, which caused quite a stir and almost emptied the place. We couldn’t tell if someone had hit him and then sped off or if he just withered in the heat and hit the pavement. 12 motorcycle cops, a fire truck, and an ambulance later, the scooped him up and sped off to Grady Memorial.

After the sun went down and the temperature plunged to about 96, we got in the car for the 3-1/2 hour drive home. Brian drove part way but when we stopped in South Carolina for a pee break, he said he had a headache and I volunteered to drive the rest of the way. Matt and Jason slept pretty much the whole trip home. By the way, the air started working again for the trip back. I think it simply decided that 100+ temps combined with almost 100% humidity was more than a Swedish car should be expected to tolerate and it simply went on strike.

We got back to Jason’s house, from which we had left at 7:30 in the morning. Kim was asleep on the sofa with the TV on and we were all exhausted. Matt and I got into my car and headed back to my house. Even this part of the day couldn’t go by without event.

As we drove out of Jason’s graveled street up to the main road, I noticed that the adjustable suspension controls for my car seemed to be taking a cue from Brian’s air conditioning. They seemed to be trying to elevate the car but not succeeding. To make matters worse, every time I went over even the slightest bump or dip, the car began to bounce like the ones I used to see cruising Franklin Blvd in Sacramento before they were banned. We limped back to my house, Matt got into his car and drove home without event as far as I know, and after dragging my garbage can and all the recyclables bins to the street, I finally got to bed at about 12:30.

In the morning the first order of business was to call Deal Motors to see about getting the Audi into the shop since it certainly was awkward to drive it in it’s bouncing condition. Danny, the service writer for Audi said his first appointment was September 3rd (I should own this business) but that if I brought it in, he would try to fit it into his work schedule between appointments.

I waited 35 minutes for the Enterprise Rental guy to come to get me so I could have a car to drive for the undetermined time it would take to get mine fixed. The 35 minutes was a little annoying since he had originally said he would be there in 10, and then when we called back, he said only 5 minutes more. Nonetheless he arrived after 35 minutes, by which time there were three of us waiting. We all rode back to the Enterprise place in a horrible little Mazda. In the back of my mind I was thinking, thank god I won’t have to be in this death can. Well, I was wrong. It turns out that the Mazda was the largest car they had on the lot. It had manual windows, door locks, and mirrors. I realize that all cars used to be equipped this way, but it does make getting in and out a lot easier when all the doors can either be locked or unlocked at the same time from the same place.

For three days I drove this little rolling silver turd and Danny still hadn’t gotten my car into the work schedule. Good fortune finally smiled on me though. Regie and I took the dogs to play at the park in Biltmore Forest and invited me back to her house for a drink after. Eric was making dinner to which I was invited, and while we were talking, he said I could drive his Volvo wagon (with functional air conditioning) while he is gone on a two-week motorcycle trip. I returned the Mazda the very next day and am now a Volvo driver. In the meantime, I decided that I’d better get an appointment with Deal to have my car repaired since it could be months if I wait for Danny to squeeze me in.

My trip to California for Jason Mininger and Maren Conrad’s wedding was not exactly what I had planned but was still great fun. I flew out on the Wednesday before the wedding. The plan was to stay at John Ballenger’s house for a couple days. Then on Friday I was to head up to Arnold for the wedding festivities that began with the rehearsal at 3:30 on Friday afternoon.

My flight out was uneventful aside from the fact that both legs of the trip arrived early and my baggage made it with me. It shocks me when a trip doesn’t turn into a disaster, but my experience more and more tells me that when you fly Continental you have a much better chance.

I arrived in Sacramento on time and headed out to John’s house courtesy of Robyn Eckern and her big ole Olds. She dropped me off, got me set up in the guest bedroom and gave me house and car keys and all by noon. We made plans to meet for lunch at Jamie’s (where I spent more hours than I can imagine when I lived in Sacramento) later and I headed off in John’s Porsche to visit a few friends.

Thursday, Jay Coble arrived mid afternoon with a massive suitcase. Reconstructing John’s Porsche at the airport in order to accommodate this monstrous bag without having the top down was something of an adventure. It was made even more comical by the fact that I had a short period of time in which to get him to his hotel downtown and then make it to Susan Phillip’s salon in time for my 4:00 pm haircut. Everything turned out OK in spite of some rather bizarre problems getting Jay checked into the Sheraton. We had a drink with Susan after my haircut and met Ann Jackson and Mary Anne Payne for dinner at a wonderful place called Mulvaney’s that is new since my last visit to Sacramento.

Jay needed to crash so the night ended early. Friday was complicated by having to get Jay’s luggage and most of his photo gear transported up to Arnold since there was no way he, his luggage, my luggage and I would all fit in John’s car. A Porsche is fun to drive and I certainly would rather have that lent to me under the circumstances than say a crummy Mazda 3, but it just isn’t a great road car for more than one person.

Without telling you the details of the entire weekend in Arnold let’s just say that it was a monumentally complex bunch of weekend events that went amazingly well. There was an interesting experience Jay and I had of driving to the cabin (actually a huge house) Jason and Maren had rented for us in the dark after the rehearsal barbecue. The Arnold area is an amazingly intricate system of narrow heavily wooded streets with no lights and few visible landmarks or signs. Finding the street the house was on would have been a miracle had I not brought my portable GPS with me from Asheville. The problem was that once we found the street (with Jason’s brother Jimmy following in his truck with Jay’s gear) we drove up and down its length a few times without finding an appropriate address number. We finally started driving into driveways where the houses appeared to be unoccupied. At about 10:00 we located the house by trying the keys. Jim headed back to his cabin and Jay and I started to settle in.

Jay apparently had been so busy shooting pictures at the barbecue that he hadn’t eaten and was hungry so, tired as we were, we were doomed to a trip out in search of food. First though, we checked out the house, which was clean and comfortable, and completely devoid of any kind of linens save for 7 dishtowels.

This clearly wasn’t going to do. We tried calling Jason and Maren but neither of us had cell coverage and the only numbers you could call on the house phone were local. In the end we had to drive to Jason and Maren’s house. This too would have been completely impossible without GPS to guide us. Frankly I don’t know how anyone can find his way around up there without it. Even after 3 or 4 visits to the Mininger/Conrad abode, I still needed the GPS to find my way out.

The wedding went off pretty much without a hitch. The kids were as unpredictable as one might expect of kids but were great just the same and provided some entertainment value in the middle of the ceremony. Jason and Maren had written very touching vows that left not a dry eye in the place. The setting, food and wine were terrific and it turned out to be a really nice weekend.

Sunday Lori (who had arrived at 2:00 in the morning on Saturday after driving up from San Francisco) and Jay headed off to Yosemite, Carmel, and San Francisco for a week’s vacation and I drove back to Sacramento for a couple more days of visiting old friends before flying home on Wednesday.

So now I am home, desperately trying to get the bids in and drawings submitted for permit before I leave again for Winesong in Fort Bragg. For someone who allegedly isn’t working, it sure seems like I am awfully busy.

I guess that’s it for now. Drop a line when you can. I like hearing from you.