Chapter 7: Designing from first principles

In which we define what we want in our lives and in our home

Where we left off: We closed on a five-acre plot of land on the edge of the Berkshires. With a place to put our home, we could finally get into designing what it would look like.

This post is written by Mindy with commentary from Ben.

Finding our place in the city

When Ben and I first moved in together in NYC, we brainstormed a list of apartment priorities.

First we came up with individual requirements and then combined our priorities after negotiating about what’s truly a deal-breaker vs. a nice-to-have.

Ben’s commentary: The joys of having a PM as a partner 😍

Note that “five minute walk to subway” was a P0 (read: top priority), followed by “one minute walk to subway” as a P1. Ben was adamant about living right next to a subway station. After all, in Manhattan, the subway gives you access to the whole city without needing to wait in tons of traffic.

After a couple weeks, we ended up on the north end of Central Park in a beautiful two-bedroom that Ben found on Zillow and arranged to see within 24 hours of it being listed. Looking back at the screenshot above, it had every single thing we wanted — down to the one-minute subway walk.

But renting or buying a home is a categorically different exercise than building one.

In the former, you’re looking for things that already exist and saying “do any of these fit our life?” It’s like going to Macy’s and buying a pre-made suit to wear to work.

Building a home is more akin to having your suit custom made.

Ben’s commentary: But if you’re going through the trouble of making something from whole cloth, it’s wise to ask: “If we’re planning to work from home, maybe we should make a fuzzy bathrobe instead?”

In other words, to us, building became more than a question of a metaphorical wardrobe to match a lifestyle. It became a question of how to co-design our lifestyle and our wardrobe together, as one unified exercise.

A lifestyle from first principles

A silver lining of the pandemic was the removal of constraints and expectations, assumptions that had long informed our life decisions. With remote work, we didn’t have to live within five minutes of a specific subway station in order to optimize for the commute. Being quarantined made us question whether the fancy cocktails and dinners out in New York City added much to our lives.

We weren’t just designing a house; we were uprooting our future lives.

In tech product management, we’re often thinking from “first principles” — breaking down a problem into fundamental truths and designing a solution from scratch.

The opposite approach is reasoning by analogy: “I’ve seen this problem before and it was solved with X. So based on my experience the solution should be X-shaped.” You would make this decision without listing out the assumptions and examining whether each is actually true.

As a result, you may end up with a decent solution, but likely not one that shakes up the status quo.

Side note: If you work in tech, you might be rolling your eyes at “first principles thinking.” Often an analogy is good enough and drives faster decision-making when the stakes are low. In this case, we were spending a meaningful portion of our net worth on our future life, so designing from first principles was appropriate.)

We wanted to shake up our status quo. And so we re-evaluated our principles in four areas of life: Environment, Relationships, Work, and Play.

Environment

Old assumption: Everything we’d want to do in the city needs to be accessible within a short subway ride. And we need a little patch of nature to walk the dogs.

New principle: Daily connection with nature is essential for happiness. The city will always be there if we need it.

What this means for our home: A lot of natural light and wood. Instead of decorating our walls with art, make them glass, so we can experience the beauty of the trees and rolling hills from inside and outside the home.

Relationships

Old assumption: Seeing friends should be convenient. We’ll occasionally hang out with family when we can make the time.

New principle: Spend an abundance of quality time with the most important people in our lives. If we care about each other, we’ll make the time and effort.

What this means for our home: Create a space that embraces slow hosting. We need the ability to host our close friends and family comfortably for longer stretches of time (e.g. a long weekend or even multiple weeks). We want to open up our home to the special people in our lives, share and cook recipes together, prioritize the time it takes to truly connect.

Work

Old assumption: Live where the HQ is and have a not-too-terrible commute.

New principle: Design a space where we can do our most creative and fulfilling work.

What this means for our home: Two home offices that we can each make our own. In addition, enough extra space for Ben to house his equipment and expand his creative work to new mediums (e.g. electronics, woodworking, experimenting with art installations)

Play

Old assumption: Be within proximity of most options in the city. Minimize FOMO in case something interesting comes up.

New principle: Appreciate simple joys. Learn and grow everyday. Take occasional trips (post-pandemic) to explore the world together.

What this means for our home: Being close to everything isn’t important. Although we’re two hours outside the city, we can always drive into New York (post-pandemic) to see a show at Lincoln Center, or to a swing dance workshop in another city (we’re now much closer to Boston, a great city for dance), or to a vacation spot.

We weren’t going out every single night in New York— maybe a couple times a month. So while we love the city— the live jazz, the dancing, the frenzy of art and culture— we were willing to choose when we wanted to be in its midst, and spend the rest of our time in a calmer, quieter place.

(That said, we do need a design our home to accommodate a Tesla charging station so that we’re able to venture out!)

Designing our home

Now with land, architects, and a plan for a new lifestyle, we finally started to explore what to build.

During our conversations with the architects, they presented us with a semi-custom plan for a pared down version of the beautiful jewel box glass home we saw on Pinterest.

Instead of wraparound glass for the entire building, the proposed plan divided the building into two: one half entirely glass and steel, the other half with traditional walls and windows.

The architects had already teamed up with a local builder who would handle pre-fabricated construction, thereby making everything much more economical (although still not cheap) and efficient (in theory).

As a concept, we were sold.

Ben’s commentary:

You might be wondering: how does the money work here? In a traditional setup, you pay the architects for their time, up to some agreed upon fraction of the construction cost (usually around 15%). In addition, the General Contractor (which is basically the PM of construction) also charges relative to construction cost (usually 10-20%).

Since our project was a joint venture of sorts between the builder and the architects (because they intend to build variations on this model for multiple clients), they combined their fee into a unified 16%.

But all of these percentages depend on the base cost of the home. Unlike many other decision spaces that follow a power law distribution of importance (i.e. where the handful of decisions determine the majority of the outcome), building a house is really the story of how an endless stream of thousand-dollar decisions can result in a huge price tag if you’re not careful.

Layout

The base design had two variants: a 2-bedroom layout with a larger master bedroom and a 3-bedroom layout with a much smaller master bedroom (shown above).

This decision was fairly easy for us. We wanted to have two home offices, so we went with the 3-bedroom. We saw ourselves spending the majority of time in our offices and in the main living space, so the benefit of a larger master bedroom was limited.

We made further small adjustments to the floor plan. We added a double vanity to the master bath since we aspire to go to bed at the same time, flipped the direction of the basement stairs and hung a closet over them for laundry machines.

Additional spaces

The architects suggested a list of optional add-ons to the base plan and we debated which ones to prioritize given our budget:

  • Garage

  • Deck

  • Basement

  • Guest house

  • Second story loft

Given that we could always add a garage later, we opted to skip it for now.

We’ll probably build a deck, although decks are pretty cheap in the grand scheme of things.

In some homes, a basement is part of the default plan, but in our case it had to be an intentional decision because constructing it might mean blasting through bedrock. We decided to opt for a basement because: (a) in the near term, it gave us storage space and Ben additional studio space for making things, (b) longer term, it allowed for the possibility of expanding our office and bedroom space.

Given the importance of hosting our friends and family comfortably, the guest house was a must-have.

Ben’s commentary: Building the guest house would turn out to be wildly more complicated than it sounds, but we’ll tell that story when we get there.

Materials

The architecture firm provided a standard menu of options for interior and exterior materials. We decided on which of the standard materials we’d want to upgrade.

The Outside

We wanted a dark exterior. The standard siding available was a dark wood.

While visiting Japan, we had come across shou sugi ban (焼杉板 ), a kind of cedar siding burnt using a centuries-old Japanese technique. Coincidentally, our architects have been one of the exemplary firms (among design magazines) to adopt it in the United States.

The end outcome is charred and beautiful, but also fire, water, rot and bug resistant.

We loved the character and beauty of the resulting wood, so we opted to upgrade our exterior siding. In their designs, the architects also brought in some of the shou sugi ban accents indoors (to be previewed in future posts).

The Inside

Another inspiration from our trip to Japan last year was this Airbnb coated in millwork (read: interior wood):

With this in mind, our architects offered us a couple options:

We debated this one for a long time and ended up choosing the millwork. Our living room was glassy and white, and we wanted the rest of the home to feel warm and den-like.

Both Inside and Outside: Glass

Glass was going to represent a significant fraction of the vertical surface area of our home. Our living room will essentially be encased in glass.

Our vision: No wall art, no spot to mount a television. Just big, beautiful glass windows overlooking the trees and hills.

There’s a wide cost range of windows one can buy depending on a number of dimensions, namely maximum pane size and frame material/construction.

We wanted 9’ tall, uninterrupted, floor-to-ceiling windows. This meant we couldn’t buy from the cheaper tier of suppliers that could only go up to 7’ or so in height. That’s how we ended up with an exorbitant amount of double-paned, argon-filled windows— a significant portion of our construction budget (roughly 10%).

A different life

As we kept ourselves busy with decisions and tradeoffs, I would occasionally pause and appreciate the significance of the life transition being designed.

In my teens and twenties, I loved big cities. I remember taking a train from Philly to Grand Central and interviewing for consulting jobs at Wharton undergrad. At the time, I found it impossibly glamorous that associates could take taxis wherever they wanted and order Seamless every night for dinner.

Working in a fast-paced job that made me feel busy and significant, while living in a city that was always on—that was the dream.

In some ways, building this house is the culmination of many changes (internal and external, big and small) that I’ve experienced over the past decade, all of which have led me to a very different picture of what a successful life looks like.

I’m grateful to have the resources, freedom, and trust in my own intuition and self knowledge to design this leap. I’m the first of many generations for whom material needs are so wholly satisfied that I can fixate on the luxury of seeking fulfillment.

“The natural development pattern is not for people to keep the same dreams but to relinquish old dreams and generate new ones throughout their lifetimes.” — William Bridges in Transitions

And most of all, I’m thankful for having an inspiring partner to co-design this transition with.

Up next: The coolest post yet—Ben models our future home in VR, and it starts to feel real.