Rugged Luxury – Mountain Timber House at the Yellowstone Club, Montana


Modern Mountain House at the Yellowstone Club, Montana


What was the driving factor in the design of this mountain home? Context.

I designed this modern, rustic mountain home at the Yellowstone Club in Montana with an aesthetic of rugged luxury specifically to integrate with the other mountain homes in the area. In many ways it is unique, but it has underlying characteristics that allow it to blend, to fit in, yet retain its own identity.

  • Heavy wood timbers
  • Rough textured, natural materials
  • Hand crafted details
  • Solid, heavy metal connections
  • Large windows comprised of many smaller windows
  • Strong connection to the earth via stone base and walls
Cotswolds, England
Cotswolds, England

Why was context the driving force behind this design? Because all communities, towns, and neighborhoods have a sense of place, sometimes distinctly good, sometimes awful, but most often unremarkable. Some, however, are extraordinary, like the Cotswolds, England. We cherish these places, and for good reason. They have a fabric that ties them together which is based in large part on architecture. Most are not the children of forethought and planning, but came into being spontaneously and were nurtured over many years.

While many are resilient, some are fragile. Sometimes one thoughtless building can rip the fabric. Imagine a modern, white building in the middle of the Cotswolds. I bet it wouldn’t last a week before an angry mob with pitchforks and torches descended upon it. I’d be the one carrying the gasoline.


How do I get an architect to design the house I want?

How do I get an architect to design the house I want?

How do I get an architect to design the house I want… and what if I don’t like the design they come up with?

These are excellent questions, and no doubt asked by virtually everyone who has ever hired an architect to design a home. The short answer? Hire a good architect. If your architect is good, they will draw your stylistic and functional preferences out of you (hopefully without having to resort to some medieval torture device – that’s a last resort for me, by the way, mostly because the cost of dungeon rentals is out of this world).  This ‘drawing out’ occurs via a design process that gives you the ability to provide feedback and let your thoughts and ideas be heard all along the way, until, at the end, you have the home design you were envisioning. If this doesn’t happen, you need a different architect. Obviously, it’s easier to hire the right architect to begin with. 

The most important question you can ask when interviewing an architect is, “What is your design process? How will we get from here to there?” Followed closely by, “Who will actually be designing my home?” And, “Did they design the houses that I like in your portfolio?” If they have no houses in their portfolio… run. Fast. You don’t want to be the guinea pig.

So, back to the question, how do you get what you want? Sometimes it’s easy. If you know exactly what you want and have pictures, you simply hand them over and say, “I want this!” Done. But let’s say you want a unique home, and cannot describe it because, frankly, you don’t really know exactly what you want, but you’ll know it when you see it. What then?

Well, that describes most of my clients (the rest just tell me to design something cool, “we trust you,” they say. No pressure there). Here’s what I do: 

First, I narrow the design direction with an in-depth discussion (called programming) of functional and aesthetic issues, likes and dislikes, such as: how they want the spaces within the home to feel; should they be cozy and warm, expansive and grand, fun and lively, charming or sophisticated, or dark and dank (surprisingly, no one ever asks for this). What’s their tolerance for openness vs. privacy.  Do they prefer a more traditional or classical or modern home. 

Next, I prepare a drawing detailing the constraints and opportunities of the site / location. This outlines what needs to be avoided (bad views, undesirable wind, difficult building conditions, etc.) and exploited (good views, sunlight and breezes, interesting site features, etc.). From this, a general idea of how the massing of the home might work out based upon available land vs. desired size of the home. If the buildable area is 1,000 square feet, for example, and the client needs 5,000 square feet of home, it’s a good bet we won’t be designing a rambler 😉

Then, I sketch – usually little vignettes and simple ideas, mostly for my own benefit, just because it’s fun. 

Finally, I design… and design… and design some more. At this point I am trying to lock down an aesthetic direction, because even if you tell me you want a modern home, for example, and I say, “Yeah, baby, let’s go!” there’s still a huge latitude of design possibilities. The images above show a variety of design ideas within a general set of design parameters. They show variations of a home designed for a hillside near Los Angeles, California.

My clients review images like these and choose a design direction based upon one or more of them. On occasion they will even send me back to the drawing board. From this process we are able to discuss the pros and cons of design ideas and they are able to pick out features and ideas that they like and ultimately set the direction for the final home design. This is how they get the home they want!

Los Angeles Hilltop Modern Glass House, Calabasas California
Final House Design Style - Selected and Refined

The rendering above shows the home design in its final configuration, ready for us to prepare the construction drawings and specifications required to build it.

Looked Everywhere. No Hunchback.

Looked Everywhere. No Hunchback.

Need a reason to go to Paris? Here’s one. Notre Dame Cathedral.
Never seen a humpback? This is the place to spot one, if you can believe the old movies (sorry, back to sensitivity training for me).

Robyn and I revel in exploring the seedier backsides of cathedrals, the haunts, the more inaccessible the better. We go to see the inner workings of the bell tower or the dusty attic – not just the places where you find the congregation, but the places where the rats congregate. We want to be where the mad hunchbacks hang.

Notre Dame is that place.  See it if you can.

Tim Bjella Sketches - Paris - Notre Dame
Tim Bjella Sketches - Paris - Notre Dame

The Tawdry, Musical Odyssey of a Flute Tramp

The Tawdry, Musical Odyssey of a Flute Tramp

This is the story of one man’s search for the perfect flute and the secret he discovered:

Having been a guitar player all my life (but without the sex and drugs part. Damn it), I was pushing 40 years on this planet and still felt I was missing something (in addition to the sex and drugs). I needed something to fill the musical gap during my more contemplative, meditative moments. The serene, quiet sound of the flute beckoned to me like one of those weird Siren babes from Greek mythology, and I wasn’t wise enough to change course, so I bought one. No sense trying one on for size first, or borrowing one from a friend to see if I liked it. No. That is not my way. I jumped right in and bought a beautiful, and expensive, Sterling Silver Boehm flute, the kind played in fine orchestras, and one time, at band camp. 

Silver Boehm Flute

Sadly, the flute didn’t even make the cut as an expensive paperweight. It just lay around in my drawer, untouched, for fifteen years (very quietly, I might add). And it’s still there. 

Even today, now that I am a marginally adequate flute player, guilt nags at me. The beautiful flute has yet to fulfill its destiny, and it’s my fault. Its exquisite voice is not eliciting joy nor drawing tears in some stately philharmonic like it could, no… like it should . I sometimes think about who might be playing it right now, were it not for me. Then I think about squirrels.  

But this year, the flute finally got its shot. Beck, my eleven year-old son, needed to select a musical instrument to play at school for the upcoming 3 years. With mild relief and tentative excitement, I dusted it off, rolled some cold, hard cash into the shaft to sweeten the deal, and proudly handed him his first musical instrument. 

Beck, heartbroken that I wouldn’t let him play my flute for school

He didn’t bite. He didn’t even blink. I fortified my stance and dug through my arsenal of subtle persuasion techniques (I have read a lot of books on the art): I said, This is the only instrument you could ever hope to be even marginally good at. Take it.” He must have been coached by his mom. With his sweetest, most angelic expression, he replied, something to the tune of, “I’ve heard you play, dad.” and walked away. It’s too bad, really. I was loaded for bear with the, “Yeah, well says you!” comeback, and had the unbeatable, “well… infinity plus 1,” waiting on deck, but he was already gone – with my money. After no deliberation, whatsoever, he chose to play the drums (I think for the sex and drugs).

Doesn’t matter. The next day I forbade him from ever playing my flute again (unless he asks, nicely. Well, unless he asks, anyway). That’ll learn him.

A Handful of One-Night Stands

During my courtship with the Boehm flute, I dallied (some might say, fooled around) with a few other flutes, some purchased on Ebay, others at Renaissance fairs from medieval-ish looking swindlers – experts in the old bait n’ switch. The flutes would sound lovely when they “played” them, but would not work at all when I got them home. David Copperfield could have learned a few things from these guys. I suspect a cunningly disguised sound system temporarily inserted into the flute, and then removed later while someone sniggered behind the register. 

These flutes came in Bamboo and various hardwoods, and in styles from Native American to Japanese Shakuhachi to Champagne. Once I finally got the hang of them, they all satisfied my dream of meditating beside a quiet, bubbling stream, just me and the flute, awash in inner peace (though technically not “awash” as I would be beside the stream, not in it, at least until Robyn found out I was playing hooky from work). Picture an oldish, less dead, David Carradine in loose fitting kung fu garb, wandering from town to town designing cool houses and playing the flute (with an occasional gig driving lemmings out of town) – but always kicking some ass.

Shakuhachi Flute

All of these flutes produced the particular sound I craved, but unfortunately had minor and major flaws: specifically, they were missing half of the minor and major notes. 

It turns out, I couldn’t play along with my favorite new age, Yanni collection unless the songs were, coincidentally, in the same key as the flute. Apparently there’s this “thing” in music called “keys,” and if your flute is made in the key of “D”, for example, you can’t play along with a song in the key of “W” (I was never big on music theory, preferring to play by ear). These “simple system” flutes, as they are called, have six finger holes, which is not enough to play all twelve of the notes upon which the “keys” are based. 

My silver Boehm flute, however, had all of the notes. Every single one of them, which explains all of  the  complicated mechanical stuff littering the shaft. You push on various parts of it, blow across the hole, and out pops the note you were looking for (or the droid, if you mistakenly push the Storm Trooper key). Anyway, I asked my Boehm flute to forgive my recent transgressions, and we were back together again.

After that, it only took a few more weeks of blowing into the darn thing, in a dismal attempt to make a decent sound, before I finally achieved aural liftoff. It was only then that I realized my mistake: the tone of the Boehm flute was pure – too pure. Too perfect. Almost cold; every note was was a triumph of precision engineering. I know that doesn’t make any sense; who wouldn’t want an instrument that plays perfect notes? 

Me, apparently. I longed for the Siren song of my mistresses in wood, the simple system flutes that provided a warm, rich and airy sound; a sound with character and depth (when played by someone else, obviously). By this time, the metal Boehm flute was cold in my hands, figuratively and literally. To add to my estrangement, the keys made me feel removed from the music. Instead of covering up the holes with my fingers, reveling in the touch of its warm body and the rising columns of air from its holes, I had to press cold metal keys, which made annoying clicking and clunking sounds (as annoying as someone chewing with their mouth open or incessantly snapping gum). The bending or sliding of notes (a slow rolling of your finger on or off a hole to play seamlessly from one note to the next.) was impossible. And the maintenance of the thing – don’t even get me started. This time, no amount of counseling could keep us together. 

Yet, I couldn’t go back to the arms (armless tubes, actually) of the simple flutes from my rather recent past. I had grown, and was beyond them, now. They would never be what I needed them to be, no matter how I tried to change them (pay attention, ladies). I suppose I could have tried to change myself. But no, that is not my way. To get the last one out of my drawers (literally this time) I resorted, ashamedly, to the old, “It’s not you, it’s me,” line. But, at least I didn’t text it. So what’s next?  Tinder?

A Bit o' the Irish

Skip Healy Keyed Flute
Skip Healy 6-Keyed Irish Flute

Say hello to the Irish flute, classical predecessor of the Boehm flute (this is the type of flute that was ubiquitous before Boehm came along and ruined everything). It’s a wood flute with six finger holes, like a simple system flute, but with 4 to 8 keys. Yes, it has keys. But, unlike a Boehm flute, the keys aren’t pressed to play notes, but rather lifted off the holes (a subtle, but important, distinction). It’s a great compromise between simple system and Boehm flutes. So I bought one, or two, or… Let’s just say I collected a few and leave it at that. I thought I had found my true love. I was wrong. Again.

But I wasn’t far off, and that’s why I’m writing this. I stumbled upon a secret that few others have. No, it’s not eternal life, nor a cure for hair loss (not sure which I would prefer). I discovered Skip Healy and his flutes.

Healy’s flutes are a flute player’s dream. I have owned or played many of the finest wood flutes made in this and prior centuries (I haven’t actually time-traveled, just played some really old flutes), but have never met its equal, not even the one made for the six-fingered man. “Hello, my name is…”  

The sound of a Healy flute has a commanding presence, loud, but not harsh, with a beautiful warm resonance. The weight and balance are suburb (I find most Irish flutes to be long and a bit awkward). Skip’s are shorter and lighter and more comfortable. Often the keys on Irish flutes are placed slightly too close to the holes, unintentionally getting in the way, especially if you use a piper’s grip (cover the holes with the middle of your fingers rather than the pads). Not Skip’s. Unless you are using the keys, you hardly know they are there. Finally, the aesthetic styling is fresh and modern yet  elegantly nods to the flute’s classic past. 

But that was not the secret. This is: One day I was in Skip’s studio in Rhode Island picking up a 6-key flute he had just completed for me (the one pictured above), when my eye happened to glimpse a lone flute lying on a workbench. It didn’t have any keys, but did have a couple more holes than a typical, 6-hole flute. I asked him if his hand had slipped and accidentally drilled some errant holes (a credit to his self control that his hand did not slip across my cheek). What he told me rocked my world, like Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull jamming on Aqualung. 

Skip Healy 10-Hole Chromatic Flute
Skip Healy 10-hole, Fully Chromatic D Flute

The flute was a keyless, 10-hole fully chromatic flute. That means that the flute could play in any musical key without the need for physical keys! Yes, you heard that right – a fully chromatic wood flute without keys. To my knowledge, no one else in the world makes one, or ever has.

When I regained my composure, I asked him, “So, what’s the catch?” He said there was no catch, except you need to use all of your fingers and thumbs. Oh, and covering the holes is a bit of a stretch. 

Bit of a stretch, indeed. I picked up the flute and tried to cover the holes, but couldn’t do it. For a brief moment I thought about bringing in a few toes to help. Back in my school days, they once showed us a motivational film about a woman without arms who did everything with her feet, from driving to washing dishes. She was amazing. Too bad she wasn’t in the shop with me. I bet she could have played it. Skip said I would get used to the flute, and he was right. It took a few months, alternating between Skip’s keyed and non-keyed flutes, but one day it all came together and I haven’t looked back. 

By way of scale, I’m 5′-8″, weigh 160 lbs, and have normal sized hands for my height (although I am told I have dainty, effeminate feet, for those of you interested in those things). My hand measures 7″ from the tip of the middle finger to the point where the wrist and hand join together. 

Honestly, it may be the hardest flute in the world to play; at least, I haven’t found one that’s more difficult. That said, it just takes a little more time and patience and finger stretching (I considered building a smaller version of a rack like you might find in a dungeon, but ended up not needing it). I wouldn’t recommend it as a first flute, or if you need to play exceptionally fast, because of the somewhat trickier fingerings, but if you are like me and appreciate a challenge, Skip Healy’s 10-hole chromatic flute is a minimalist’s dream. 

So, there you go. I finally found my true love (and I rarely cheat on her, and then only with her sister).

Skip doesn’t make flute cases, and I needed one for my travels, so I designed the one below. It is constructed of zebra wood with inlaid wood strips and features magnetic closures plus a flush, wood locking button (you can see it on the end). It is my first attempt to build a wood case, so I have to admit, I am pleased how it turned out.