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.
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?