UNDERHILL HOUSE — WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Much of the inspiration for the home we are building has its roots in the 300-year-old farmhouse we lived in while Doug was doing his postdoc in the Netherlands about 25 years ago.

We were  particularly open to the idea of building a whole-tree, unmilled timber frame house because we’ve already had the good fortune to live in a house held up by wooden supports carrying the  individual character of the trees   they came from.  That’s me, having my morning coffee in our Dutch dining area, which was in a part of the house that had originally been a stable.  The house would be called small by American standards, and yet it was both house and barn for its first century or so.

Another feature of the house was a small plaque by the front door with a Dutch word, “Warmoe,” we could find no translation for.  We asked our neighbors.  They said it was just the name of the house, and it went back beyond anyone’s recollection as to what it meant.

I don’t think everyone in the village knew the name of our house in the 1980s, but I’ll bet the villagers did 100 years ago.  It was probably used to give directions.    Street numbering was instituted by an act of Parliament in England in 1765, and the Dutch probably started  numbering about the same time.   Before that, named houses would have been a big help in giving directions and finding your way.

It occurred to us a few months ago, that our house needed a name.

Since we’re hoping  that this will also be a building that provides direction toward more mindful construction materials and practices, a name makes sense.  Remembering the mysterious name of our Dutch house, we wanted to pick something that would not lose its meaning.  We considered names that might indicate its passive solar design or some other construction feature.

What finally resonated with both Doug, me and our architect Della Hansmann is Underhill House.

Ever since we started looking for land, we were always seeking a place where we could build into a hill with a southern exposure to take advantage of all the passive solar and earth sheltered potential a site like that provides.  It was no accident that one of the reasons we fell in love with our 44 acres, was that it had a reasonably practical building site on a south-facing slope.   The choice of a sod roof that slopes down from the northeast to the southwest, reflecting the hill itself, was the capper for choosing the name.  Draped in dirt, we think our house will appear to have risen up out of the hill ready to capture the morning sun, and yet still be grounded under an earthy crown.

The Driftless Area escaped being ground flat by the past three glaciers that passed over this area, and is incongruously rugged.  There are plenty of south-facing hills.  But if you pick a hill that’s too steep, you run into a lot of building challenges, and surmounting those challenges is not exactly green.

Even our reasonably gentle slope has already cost us and the environment.  Because the ground was sloping and soft and sandy, we had to use a pumper truck, which could park safely below and push the concrete for the foundation high into the air.  But we anticipate that the energy equation will come to rest well on the sustainable side as Underhill House soaks up decades, we’re hoping centuries, of energy savings.

So, before it has walls or a roof, our house has a name.  Underhill House.  I have gazed at that slope so many times as we planned our house, hoping to build a home that will seem almost to be a part of the hill it is nestled under.

Those Tolkien readers among you will detect a familiar reference.  That small resonance with Bag End, added to our fondness for the name.  (I’m not going to tell you how many times I’ve read Lord of the Rings, but it is less than 20 – probably.)

I like this name.

Underhill House

 If you want to build a sustainable home, follow the path to Underhill House and then keep on going.

What do you think about naming houses? 

What are the coolest house names you’ve heard?

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19 replies

  1. I love the idea of naming houses. While we were looking for a home most recently, we drove by one for sale, located next to a fairly large, prairie river. There were boulders by the drive announcing the name, “A River Runs Through It.” A great name…although not too reassuring for someone thinking about buying it!

    I’ve been trying to think up a name for our home and land for a couple years now. I’ve come up with many alternatives, but the one that seems to be sticking the most is “Patchwork Prairie.” (We are working to restore prairie on about 9 out of our 10 acres.) It’s far from grand, but the motif fits our restoration work, the history of the local area, and the feel of the house – a mishmash of a design that works best as an unassuming cottage.

    I think you’ve hit a winner with Underhill House (or maybe even just Underhill) – and I enjoy the reference to Tolkien!

    Good luck as you continue building. I’m looking forward to watching as it all comes together.

  2. I am totally on board with naming a house or property in my case. The house is still in the planning stages. Last summer my wife and I bought 18.5 acres in the north woods of Wisconsin. Thanks to this unseasonably warm weather I am now sitting in front of a campfire tapping this note out on my phone. The odd thing is I get better coverage here in the woods than I do in Chicago. My plan is to begin building a small butt and pass log cabin this summer, it wil be good practice for me before
    3I attempt to build our retirement home (20+ years from now). We’ve named our land and future home,Serenity.
    Thank
    For sharing your story
    Ray

    • I can’t think of a better name than Serenity, Ray. Yesterday I was out on our land working all day on painting timbers under a deep, blue sky, listening to the birds and feeling very serene.
      Good luck with your cabin this summer. Are you blogging about it? I’d love to follow your progress.

  3. Underhill is a subtle reference, which I think is better than an obvious one like “Bag End.” Also, it makes me think of Roy Underhill from PBS’s The Woodwright’s Shop – another advocate of simpler times.

  4. I like names that reflect the character of the place or have some meaning but I must admit to hating those names that end up a bit silly, like naming a house in England after somewhere in Spain to remind people of their Spanish holidays. I guess it’s meaningful to the occupants though!

    Here in Latvia places are quite often named after natural features and so there is Mālkaln or clay hill, or our ski hill is Avenu kaln or Raspberry hill – not that there are any raspberries there now, as it is a steep meadow. Our own land was named by one of the previous owners as Griezites or Corncrake because she remembered all the Corncrakes making a noise in that area and we still hear them now. One friend lives at Kurmi or mole, but that is also a common surname as people were named after natural things by the German barons so may have been the owners surname.

  5. Very interesting, Joanna. I think that Europe has a much more nuanced tradition of naming buildings and properties.
    But when we are talking about silly names, I think the U.S. might win that competition. I have never been able to understand why so many places have signs that say Back Acres. Yes, we’ve all strained our backs in service to our land from time to time, but is that what we want to immortalize?
    And down the road from me now is a big sign, Rumpus Hollow. It puzzles me why they wanted to do that.
    But everyone has their own take.
    That’s why I’m enjoying these comments so much.

    • Interesting, Denise. When I hear “Back Acres”, I think of our 5 acres “out back”! Our property is long and narrow, with the house located in the front, so the term “back acres” comes very naturally to us. Funny how experience so often effects even literal translations!

  6. Yes, Gaia. And you have made me think about how the shape of a property affects our relationship to it.
    Our 44 acres represent a quarter section, so it is square, but because of the way the valley bends, and consequently the road is laid out, we have a an extra 4 acres in the northwest corner, making a shape like a beaker.
    Dedicated, methodical and energetic men walked this entire country with chains mapping out the land, but when I see the way their arbitrary lines cut through the hills and valleys, I wish it could have been done more organically, following the natural contours.
    I’m grateful for the little beaker spout four acres that do follow the earth whenever I look at our land in the aerial photo.

    • Efficiency does not always (often?) sync with most meaningful or best adapted use, does it? Here in Kansas, where EVERYTHING seems to be laid out on a grid, it’s very easy to get around, but the overlay of the grid emphasizes the flat aspect of the land to the detriment of enjoying its graceful rolling nature.

      • I know what you mean. My grandparents had a farm in central Illinois. In fact, it was in the Sangamon River Valley, where there are some gentle undulations and more acres of wooded bottomland than the general area. But the roads were still laid out in a grid. As a child, I remember how the very few places where the road had a natural curve were exciting landmarks to me.

  7. When we started building our new house on the site of my grandparents’ house, I had trouble saying “our house” or “my house.” I’d spent my entire life calling it “Papa and Mommom’s house,” and after my grandmother died in the 1990s, “Papa’s house.” At some point, I just started calling it Hilltop House, and it stuck. And now our little prairie restoration area out back is called Hilltop Prairie.

  8. What a great story. I know what you mean about the power of childhood names. I named my daughter after my grandmother, and then had the hardest time at first calling my little baby the name so deeply associated with my grandma. Now I’m so glad I did.

  9. Thanks, Lorijo. If you are referring to the Tolkien reference, we’re thinking of when Frodo Baggins left the Shire on his quest, Gandalf advised him to travel under the name of Underhill.
    I’ve always had a fondness for Bag End and its underhill character.
    When my daughter/architect was spending her junior year abroad going around the world studing issues of environment and social justice, I visited her while she was in New Zealand. We spent a happy week visiting sites where The Lord of the Rings had been filmed. One of the coolest was the place where they filmed Bag End. That really cemented my conviction that building into a hillside is a cozy way to live.

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