A Few Good Men


Being a general contractor is not simply about knowing how to build. To have a shot at success, one has to have the ability to grasp the core of an individual while simultaneously managing the tapestry of a team. In short, it’s business acumen, an attribute most often ascribed to men in my vocation.

Along with the amazing women in my family, I had the pleasure of growing up surrounded by smart, loving, successful men and, among other things, the men in my family taught me how to communicate, befriend and be a friend, negotiate mutually beneficial relationships and be of service. They also taught me how to listen, how to laugh at myself and how to let go. Over time, a myriad of bygone relationships brought along the lessons of how to allow others to take care of me, how to be fearless, how to love unconditionally. And my husband – who is the kosher salt of the earth – has schooled me in how to put my foot down and set boundaries, how to trust and protect at the same time, how to loosen my reins, and how to partner both my strengths and weaknesses with his own.

All of these characteristics, these pearls of active wisdom, have aided me becoming a different kind of contractor, a better leader, a solution-seeking boss lady, and the type of woman I am today. Perhaps I am not typical, but I do not intend nor ascribe to be.

More often than not, people are curious about how I became a builder and, with that, inevitably, they ask me if my father was in the business – the assumption being that I was introduced to the trades in my youth. Let me assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. My dad, like so many of our fathers, was a master of duct tape, spit and spirit.  Suffice to say, my knowledge base of construction was limited to terrariums, paper mache and dioramas (and we have my mother to thank for that!).

That being said, he always found his way from point A to point B.

I remember when my dad built us a tree house just after we moved to Massachusetts. It was a simple platform nestled into the crotch and nailed off into strong limbs three stories up. We ascended to our sky fort on 2”x4” pieces of lumber nailed to the trunk and, if memory service me correctly, there may have been a handrail of some sort on two of four sides to keep us steady. Maybe.

Certainly not to code, but we got there – every time – without issue.

I have wonderful memories of being up there secreting away the day with books and toys, and an even better memory of what I call The Great Fall.

Autumn was lovely on the East Coast. The crisp clean air, the smell of old fruit and rotting bark filled our nostrils as we headed into winter. My brothers and I spent the day raking and bagging the latest castoff, a chore we were assigned to every fall season. Of course, like all children, we raked everything into the biggest pile we could before filling our Hefty bags, and then we would go flying off the roof of the garage, praying we didn’t catch a stray rock in the head upon touchdown. There we would romp and play in the decay, immune to the mildew, the creepy crawlies, the future.

Nothing mattered. We had a big-ass pile of leaves! Pure delight. Things couldn’t be better.

Or could they?

As children do, we invented a new game. As Barton children do, we combined science and math into our new game. The idea was to create a weight-counterweight system with bags of leaves that would allow us to – if only for a brief moment – experience weightlessness. Brilliant!

Out came the ropes and we put my elder brother Jim’s Eagle Scout knot-tying skills to work. Then we sent my younger brother Billy – being that he was already missing several teeth from a downhill skateboarding snafu – up and out onto the largest, highest limb he could manage. Once he caught the loose end of the rope and looped it off at our tree house, we were good to go. At the bottom of our fly zone was the now-relocated huge pile of leaves that would accommodate the softest landing possible. BRILLIANT!

We spent the next several hours climbing up and jumping off as quickly as we could. Our calculations were spot-on: weight, counterweight, weight, counterweight. We were flying!

If only for a moment.

We worked that tree until Mother blew the air horn that announced supper. Time for one more flight, and it was my turn.


Bill stood attendant on the platform holding the loose end of the rope for me while Jim manned and assembled the counterweights below. I slicked back my pigtails, pulled up my mauve Toughskins, and began my ascent. Bill handed me the rope and we all shared a knowing grin before I set off on what was going to be THE best jump of the day.

And it was. It was the best jump of the day, of my life, and one I am quite sure will never be repeated.

I was flying. I was literally flying!

If only for a moment. 

I landed hard, backside to the earth, the wing knocked out of me, the ground solidly rammed into my spine.  Insults being companions to injury, my first manageable inhale was accompanied by leaf dust and winter moth. Although my soldier lay prone, I took it all in like a guard at Buckingham Palace as I stared skyward at my loving brothers – now smiling and doubled over with laughter – then at both ends of a suspiciously unattached rope coiled on my belly and our counterweight, unmoved, three feet away.

Among everything else, those boys taught me how to take a joke.

And a hit.

Brilliant...  ;)


A Chat With Frances Anderton


A few months ago, Frances Anderton interviewed Joan for KCRW's Design and Architecture : NPR series. There has been an amazing response from women and men across the country who were both touched and inspired by the interview since its broadcast, and they have been reaching out to us daily to share their thanks, their questions, and their own stories with us. Being such, we thought it important to share it with our followers. You can listen to the podcast here: https://www.kcrw.com/people/joan-barton



We thought summer was good to us.... and then came fall!  We turned over keys on some great builds, were featured in a magazine, and two of our team were wed.  


FIRST CAME LOVE for this exciting modern craftsman in Venice. We teamed up with John Winston Studio and Carter Design  to create an adventurous space filled with indirect light, reclaimed beams, hidden spaces, creative nooks, and fixtures imported from across the globe. A simple, yet color-filled, home that reflects the personality of our well-traveled philanthropist client was the key to success for this wonderful project.                                           

                                                                johnwinstonstudio.com           www.carterdesignwest.com


HOT OFF THE PRESS  Metropolitan Home featured a few really amazing women for the relaunch, who are dominating their creative fields.  It's both humbling and exciting that they included Dirty Girl Construction alongside Niki Livingston from Look Out and Wonderland and Lisa Donohoe and Brynn Gelbard of Londubh Studio. Niki's work with indigo is a beautiful alchemy of  spirit and sustainability, and we look forward to more with her in our future endeavors.  Lisa and Brynn stole our heart years ago with their sorcery, creating funky geometric installations inspired by nature. Metropolitan Home www.instagram.com/methomemag  is available at Whole Foods, so go grab yourself a copy when you pick up your next kombucha. 
                                                       lookoutandwonderland.com               www.londubhstudio.com


MONA MOORE Is a highly curated, luxury boutique offering a variety of designer clothing, shoes, handbags, and accessories.  Owner Lisa Bush and her fabulous team saw potential in an old mechanic shop on Lincoln Boulevard in Venice.  With their vision and blessing we turned the space into a clean bright backdrop to showcase pieces that are hand-picked and well traveled.



THEN CAME MARRIAGE   If you ever wanted to see what adoration truly is, look no further.  Joan and Dan created a beautiful space in Cape Cod, Massachusetts to share their vows with each other and their now-united family.  The happiness they share is clear, not only in this photo but with every passing moment they are together. 

Where there is love, there is life. - Mahatma Gandhi





With Abandon – Part I

Sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a field surrounded by a wrangle of hobbyhorses, or driving down the highway where I spy dilapidated railcars poking through winter’s defoliation every few miles – rusted, still, forgotten. Curious things, with an edge of creep and an air of mystery that cause my mind to bristle with obvious questions, all which need to be answered before I can rest. 

My career requires me to be a bit of an archaeologist, to dig – both literally and figuratively – into the homes and lives of complete strangers. On occasion, when cleaning out a basement or an attic, I’ve had the pleasure of discovering and recovering entire histories of a family or institution long forgotten. I always have to take the stories as far as I can, figure out as much as possible about the where, the why, the who. I like puzzles; it’s how I’m built.

My most recent find was in my neighbor’s attic, pre-remodel, where we uncovered the story of the original owners: a family that migrated from Kansas to California in the late 1800s, surely arriving via the Santa Fe Railway Line just after its completion in 1885.

Piece by piece, for weeks on end, we removed dust-covered trash and treasure from overhead and began laying out their forgotten history before us: school readers, illustrated children's books, and texts on etiquette and human geography; a Kansas driver’s license (complete with a citation handwritten on the back); family photos; holiday decorations and heirlooms; news clippings and magazines reporting on everything from Lucille Ball’s pregnancy, to the latest war, to the rise and death of JFK. She shopped at Piggly Wiggly on a monthly account, paid on time and in full. He liked to tinker in the garage and was extremely organized, down to the last nail. We found the original blueprints for the house. We found a little piece of human history.

We were mesmerized and inspired – enough so, we reclaimed every salvageable piece of material possible and repurposed it anew into the latest construction, going so far as to expose certain elements of the original structure, rather than cover up the history of the home.

I eventually went on to dig a little more, trying to round out the final bits and puzzle pieces, and have since been able to trace the family back five generations. Additionally, I know a lot about this neighborhood, so I’ve also been able to make a few educated assumptions when documentation eludes me. In the 1930s and 40s, Howard Hughes created an aerospace empire a few miles down the street, where he designed and built the “Hercules,” also known as the “Spruce Goose.” The original hangar is still located in what is now the Playa Vista development – also known as Silicon Beach – and it houses part of Google. The house next door was built in 1942, and this particular neighborhood was originally built to accommodate the need for housing and industry as related to WWII. In fact, two streets over was previously a landing strip that ran through the middle of green bean fields. My best guess is that great-great-Grandpa Alvin was a mechanic or engineer working in the aerospace industry. His son, Leon, born in 1941, eventually came to inherit the house along with his wife Lodema, where they raised two more generations of family before selling. Leon was a bit of a scientist himself, with a patent on a fish bait and lure illuminator, and he loved to race sailboats.

I know all this simply because I care about what came before me. I like to find purpose, as well as a way to repurpose, whenever possible. Every thing and everyone has a story, and someone has to remember to retell those stories, lest we forget. In times like these, especially, it’s important to me to remind myself – and one another – that we all came from somewhere else and we are all connected by the fragile thread of being held human.

Yes… sometimes I find myself standing in the middle of a field surrounded by a wrangle of hobbyhorses. It’s a curious thing…

...and a story to be told another day.


 A Santa Fe Railway Map

A Santa Fe Railway Map

 Salvaged Books

Salvaged Books




Stairway to For Heaven's Sake!

On occasion, we find something in a house that operates upon the notion of antigravity technology. However, gravity is an actual thing. I've read about it. The bags under my eyes are likely proof of it.

Below is a photo of what a staircase is NOT supposed to look like. If you're in the industry, I'm sure you're eyes are popping out of your head right now and "WTF" is ping-ponging around in your brain as you look for any indication of true structural support. Good luck finding it!

Upon discovery, we took measures to make sure that our client got another century or two out of the second story (see second pic). And while I'm all for empowering homeowners to do it themselves from time to time, knocking out a wall and saying, "It seems to be holding just fine," is almost always a bad idea.

 An example of "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!"

An example of "NO! NO! NO! NO! NO!"

 An example of "Let me fix that for you!"

An example of "Let me fix that for you!"




The Switzerland of Color

 Farrow and Ball Fan Deck

Farrow and Ball Fan Deck

Neutrals are popular in design because they harmonize with nearly everything and allow other colors and patterns to be used as accents, typically without issue. Whether by use of an alternate paint color or the surrounding décor, creating depth in your personal palette is achievable. That being said, while choosing a neutral may seem simple, there are several factors to consider in choosing which neutral best suits your environment.

One of the working definitions of a neutral is to describe it as a hue not appearing on the standard color wheel, which consists of primary, tertiary and secondary colors. However, if you go to the paint store and look at a fan deck, you’re going to see primary, tertiary, secondary and neutral tones. Blacks, whites, grays, and browns are commonly considered neutrals and, with that, all of the neutral tints, shades, and hues available in those tones means choosing a neutral is not always easy.  Additionally, each company has different formulas, uses different color bases, and has their own methodology for creating their line. Many people find neutrals more difficult to work with than absolute color, especially given that there are ten-odd versions of a paint color called Swiss Coffee, and they are – of course – all a different shade by the same name.

When looking at neutrals, keep in mind that a neutral – except for 100% black or 100% white – has another color in it. Whether or not you can see the underlying tone is dependent on a variety of things: spectral perception, your immediate surroundings, and lighting are some of the key ingredients in how we see color. Another important factor that affects how we discern color is application. It’s important to note that you should NOT pick out a paint color from a website where you spent the afternoon colorizing a computer-generated bedroom, order 20 gallons and then slap it on your house without first purchasing a sample quart and testing a few areas around your home. If you’re looking at paint colors on a wall or ink on paper, versus color on a computer, you’re looking at two completely different colors in reality. One reason for this is that on tangible surfaces we are using a subtractive color method. Subtractive color means that we begin with white and end with black and, as we add color, the result gets darker and moves toward black. On a computer screen, we are working with light and using an additive color method, which begins with black and ends with white as more color is added. When you see terms like CMYK and RGB, this is what defines whether you are using a subtractive or additive color method, and a monitor read of color is different than an applied read. I like to think of it as light shining on something, as opposed to light shining through something.

Wow! Picking a neutral sounds really hard, Dirty Girl Construction! What’s your advice?

Why, thank you for asking. Happy to help!

You can always call on a professional to help you. Whether you choose a designer, decorator, an architect or the color specialist at your local paint store, there are people out there who can help you understand what works best for your environment.

If you feel able to do this on your own, then grab a fan deck and – literally – fan it out in front of you. Look at the neutrals and the grayscale sections. This is the easiest way to see the subtle differences between shades and pick up on the underlying tones – green, blue, red, purple, yellow, orange – in any neutral. Play around by placing other colors, fabrics and finish elements that speak to you next to the neutrals so you can see how those items change your color perception.

Once you’ve selected a few, buy sample quarts and try them out around your house where the light plays differently throughout the day. As mentioned, within each neutral, there are shades and hints of other colors, and lighting plays a big part in how these colors read in the room. Natural, incandescent, or fluorescent lighting could mean that the off-white shade on the wall winds up with a greenish tint; LEDs can cast any number of tones but most commonly read as blues or yellows. If you evaluate your choices in different lighting environments at different times of the day, this will give you your most accurate study.




The Wall of Fail

Architect, engineer, builder, designer, decorator: no matter your expertise, the idea is to create, and the goal is, often times, to create something new, never-before-seen and breathtaking.

But that doesn’t always mean the idea is going to be great.

Or even good.

And, unlike the ugly holiday sweater craze, you cannot take a poorly finished house off at the end of the night and store it away until next season. You have to actually live in it.

We’ve had some interesting moments in 2016, but the monstrosity below was a wonder to behold… long enough to take a photo anyway. And then we set about demolishing this obvious DIY-er before the hobbits who live inside of it grabbed us by our boots and secreted us away between the boulders until we could be hung by the chimney with care come Christmas.

Taking center-stage on The Wall of Fail this year is (drum roll)… Lava the Huh?

 Wonderland Avenue Before Photo

Wonderland Avenue Before Photo

…and, for additional holiday pleasure, some other attempts that surely belong pinned up beside it.