The House That Joe Built

So my dad had been building his house for the last 8 years or so, doing almost all of the work himself or with close friends. After that much time you may expect a sprawling mansion, but it’s actually an extremely modest 800 square-foot one-bedroom. He didn’t want a big house, he wanted a project, and something that he could manage mostly on his own. And because he was on his own–without anyone telling him how you’re supposed to build a house–he could challenge himself and experiment with some of his more unorthodox (but arguably genius) ideas.

A little background first. At the core of this project is my dad’s long-standing battle with water. He had been a tile-setter by trade for as long as I’ve been around, and so he would say that he’d spent most of his professional life fixing or averting problems caused by water. In his career he came across plenty of rotten wood where water tenaciously soaked or dripped its way through a building’s defences. Water was his nemesis, and so he studied it, like any good super-hero would, by reading probably thousands of pages of various books on H2O and its chemical, geographic and historical effects. So when the time came to build his own house he pledged to create something impervious to water, with nothing that could rot: no wood.

He did a lot of research for every aspect of the build, and for the structural walls he settled on insulated concrete forms, which are basically these styrofoam lego blocks which you just stack and fill with steel and concrete. It’s fun. They form very strong walls, and the styrofoam is highly rated insulation. For plumbing and electrical, you just cut away the styrofoam with a hot-knife, lay the wire or pipe, and plaster right over it. I suspect that’s the part he liked the best. The exterior plaster is one of the few things left unfinished, so you can still see the exposed blocks.

Inside it gets more interesting. The main reason the build went on for so long and remains unfinished was because of his finances. The recession hit him pretty hard, and as sort of a natural defence mechanism my dad became a keen recycler. He always had scrap left over from other jobs, and so these smaller pieces of random tile and stone became moulding, mosaic, windowsills and other details throughout the interior. From working on his friend’s house down the road he ended up with quite a lot of scrap travertine, enough to fashion a few bookshelves (he was always expanding his library).

One of my favourite little details (and relevant to computer graphics, thank you very much!) are these proofs of Pythagorean’s Theorem, glued to the wall:

The most impressive thing though must be the kitchen table. It’s concrete, first of all, which has stopped sounding odd to me a long time ago, and cantilevered out of the wall so that it appears to levitate. It’s polished almost to a mirror and tapers delicately. Basically it defies most of what you expect out of concrete, and it looks both improbable and impressive.

My dad was even scared of it for a while, not being an engineer and not knowing if it would really work, until one day he got up the nerve to climb on top of it and walk all the way to the end.

In the background of that photo you can see another curiosity: two dishwashers. The story goes he was shopping for cabinetry, and was appalled at the prices. By way of comparison, he realized that for space, cabinets cost about as much as dishwashers. That was the seed, and the rest is history: now he’s got a clean washer and a dirty washer and no need to ever unload.

The other bachelor pad feature of the kitchen is the slight slope to the floor, the drain under the sink, and the hose coiled up in a cabinet next to the fridge. He could just spray it all down. No need to move the table even. Hell, spray that down too.

The bathroom is a sight as well, I really wish I had more photos of that to share. The entire room is clad in stone; floor, ceiling and everything in between. It’s designed basically as one big shower, with no dam or any delineation at all really between where you shower and where you brush your teeth. The bathroom counter is a big flagstone that he carved a shallow sink out of, which cleverly drains into the wall so as not so show any plumbing underneath. The spigot as well is a piece of carved stone.

In addition to the bookshelves and table, the house’s other furnishings include a concrete desk, concrete bed frame, and Murphy bed/couch that has concrete armrests. After he built that last thing he joked that they were tied into the foundation so well that they could stop a truck.

He never had a grand plan for all of this, most of it was stream of consciousness, dependent on what materials he had on hand and what inspired him on the day. It fit his personality in that way. I was always pleased to come for a visit and see what was new, large or small. It was his opus, and appropriately one that made many people a bit confused. It was a house tailor made for himself, with all the things he needed and nothing he didn’t, though now that he’s gone it feels like he had been building a monument. It embodies his craftsmanship, cleverness, creativity, humour, and eccentricity. He put everything into it, and didn’t really leave much else behind.

It’s sad that he couldn’t complete it. In some ways I think he probably always would have been working on parts of it, but I would have liked for him to feel like it was done, with a finish that he was proud of. As the caretakers now, that’s what my siblings and I are going to try to do for him, and ourselves. If anyone would like to help contribute there’s a fund set up here:, and I promise that’s the last time I’ll mention it. We appreciate all the gracious and selfless support we’ve received already, even from strangers and people who have never met my dad, or even me for that matter. It really knocks me down. Thank you all so much.

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5 Responses to The House That Joe Built

  1. Morgan,
    Carol sent this to me and I loved your writing and the photos.
    I will forward it to my brothers and other family members.
    I noticed Jack Biesek is still on the email list. Another man we lost too soon.
    It was so wonderful to meet Jessica and Pearl! When you were planting the tree it was a fitting end that Pearl was playing in the dirt, with her grandpa who loved her dearly.
    You are a wonderful writer. Love to you and the girls, Nancy Claire

  2. melinda forbes says:

    thank you Morgan. what a beautiful tribute to your dad and his genius. it fits well with the verbal tribute you wrote and read at the memorial.
    i think about you guys and hope all is well. loss is so hard to define and process.
    much love to you and your family. melinda

  3. Mike "Sully" Sullivan says:

    Aloha Morgan
    Mahalo for sharing your dad’s project with us, You are proud of him and as you should be. He was a great man , friend and he was like a brother to me. I miss him and regret that I never took the time to go to the Ranch and visit with Joe the few times I have been to the Central Coast. Take care and always keep him in your heart, I know he loved his children.

  4. Parker Hall says:

    Morgan: I really enjoyed your description of the house & the photos. Nancy Claire got this from your sweet mother and sent it to me. I’ve been meaning to write to you since the memorial. Your father’s death followed the deaths of my daughter, Laura, and my best friend from college, Jim McCarthy. What I had with each of them cannot be replaced. There is an article in a very recent New Yorker about Philip Roth and his reaction to the deaths of his fondest friends that helped me deal with my grief and you might find some comfort there. Love, Parker

  5. Thank you guys for the kind responses, it’s nice to hear from you.

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