BUILDING A HOUSE ON A ROLLER COASTER

Your roller coaster creeps slowly, slowly toward the top of the track, and for a moment, you pause  before plummeting.  It’s a moment in which you are eager for the thrilling plunge and yet, you may also be asking yourself whatever possessed you to get on this ride.

There is a moment just like this when you are building a house — That moment when the heavy lifting of the planning has finally come together with sufficient detail to break ground and go.

It’s a good analogy because a chain and motor has exerted force on the train to lift it to the top of that very tall hill.  At the top of the hill, that car possesses a large quantity of potential energy that will drive you on it’s trajectory to a completed home.

That potential energy = your planning time.

The more planning time – the better the ride.

You have a lot to learn, and a lot to decide, and you need to take a few years to think it all through.

If you want to build it green.

If you want to build it to last.

If you want to build it to fit you like a glove

Don’t rush.  Don’t get in a situation where you have to get it done rather than get it right.

Doug and I were dreaming about land in Wisconsin for years.  Finally we found a place that feels right.  We thought we would be building in a couple of years.

March 2005. Doug is going to join our neighbors cutting out what we hoped would be the end of the oak wilt on our building site. Notice the teensy pines in the left foreground.

I am so glad we didn’t.

We didn’t know it then, but we weren’t really ready to build.  Not even close.  We had a lot to learn.  We had a lot to digest.  We had a lot to decide.

We have whittled away rooms.  We have turned more and more to local materials.  Just this summer we decided to go with a sod roof.  Just this fall we found a local miller who can turn the pines blocking our southern exposure into roofing boards, and talked to a local quarry for some exterior stone facing only to realize how easy and green it will be to make about half of our floors out of Mineral Point flagstone on sand rather than pour concrete.

Just this Thanksgiving weekend we sat down to study the drawings again with our daughter/architect and realized that eliminating one window on the south wall opens up exciting possibilities and makes everything fit together even better.

Same scene a few years and a barn later. The house site is just behind the barn to the right. And get a gander of those teensy pines to the left. These trees have grown tall while we planned our house.

We’ve been living with our land for 8 years now and working on our house plans for at least three years.

In early December a crew will start felling the trees we selected last summer and they will start prepping the timbers.  By March, we will dig into the hill and pour the foundation.

It’s going to be a wild ride.

What ratio of planning to building have you experienced in your projects? 

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6 replies

  1. We lived with our land dreams for two years now and decided not to build a house. We have a barn and we have a greenhouse but we can’t put a house on the land. it would spoil the place. We are thinking of making our caravan (trailer) a little more permanent and a bit like a hobbit house but it won’t be as permanent as a house. Maybe one year we will change our minds, but so far we are comfortable with our decision. We wish you well with yours and I think it is great that you have spent so long on the planning, you have built such a store of knowledge along the way.

    • Nothing is black and white, is it Joanna?
      We too wrestled with whether building on our land would ruin it.
      I would not build another house just to have someplace new to live. We have put so much thought into this project to build what we hope will be a kind of model home for alternative, sustainable building. That has fueled our fervor to get the details right.
      Living near Madison, we are hoping to spread the word about many of the methods our building will employ and then show it to everyone who wants to see it before they build.
      That has kept me going.

  2. Sounds a lot like writing a novel, to me. I finished the first draft of my novel years ago, but it wasn’t nearly ready to be published. It’s taken a lot of time, patience and input from other people to get it to the point where it may–just may be ready for publication. And there’s all the upkeep (in novel terms, that’s ongoing promotion.).

    • Very inciteful, Lorijo.
      As novelists, we both know about the cycle of endless revision. There have been many, many drafts of our house plans. We are lucky because our daughter has made many of these changes in her own, non-billable, hours, but I think it is always a mistake to shortchange the planning end of any complex project.

  3. Hang in there! We planned, but we still didn’t really know what we were doing. We hired a general contractor (for a long list of reasons I won’t bother you with now), and it was necessary but incredibly frustrating.

    We ran into nothing but resistance and blank looks everytime we tried to recycle/salvage materials, install non-standard energy savers such as an attic fan or tankless water heater or skylights. It was a battle every step of the way — and we never did get the tankless water heater or skylights.

    And don’t get me started on the waste of construction materials — my husband and I spent every evening after work (and all weekends) pulling things out of the onsite dumpster — plywood, 2x4s, plumbing pipe, nails. It was ridiculous. (Now we have a barn full of construction materials that come in very handy for projects.)

    This is (hopefully) our forever home, so we’re not doing it again, but I sometimes wish we had built a “starter home” for the experience before tackling this project. There are a lot of things I would have done differently, but at the time, we didn’t have the flexbility or the knowledge. Plus, I think our area/region was right on the tip of sustainability awareness — if we had waited even one year, I think we would have had more buy-in and support for sustainable building practices. (We started construction June 2008, moved into house April 2009.)

    • Thanks for sharing your experience. It sounds like you were trying to execute sustainable, non-conventional building values within the conventional building system, and you probably did some good — opening your conventional builders to some new ideas.
      We are very fortunate to be working with a non-conventional builder. We bring new ideas to the table, but they are leading the way with how to build with the smallest possible carbon footprint and use local and reused materials.
      Whole Trees Architecture doesn’t even work with an onsite dumpster. There is very little to discard in the process.
      I think there are good reasons to use a general contractor. Ideally, they have experience that adds real value to the project.
      great deal.
      But building has been going down a nonsustainable path for so long, there are a LOT of builders out there who don’t yet get it.
      Sorry you had such a bad experience.
      I know there will be anxious moments in the building process when we will probably not be in synch with our builders on some issue, but I’m feeling pretty positive right now.

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