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Building a house without going nuts

After five house moves and a couple of busted romances, I finally decided it was time for me to get a place of my own.

And so it was that I became that rarest of contemporary species: a Vermonter who is having a house built.
There were plenty of reasons for me not to do it.
Building is almost inevitably more expensive than buying. It can take forever, and it is fraught with uncertainties ranging from financing to fit and finish.
It subjects the would-be owner to months of crazy-making decisions, ranging from the inconsequential (what should the doorknobs look like?) to the nearly apocalyptic (make and model of the kitchen faucet).
Yet in looking around for an existing house that could nicely accommodate one-and-maybe-eventually-two middle-aged, middle-class adults without breaking the bank, I couldn’t find anything appealing that would not involve a long drive into town.
Viewing newly built homes in particular, I decided I could probably build one for not much more.
Of such is human folly made.
But sometimes in the folly lies adventure.
Because I wanted to be out in the country, the first challenge was getting easy access to a building site and then insuring power, phone and septic.
It soon became obvious that putting in these basics could drive the price into the stratosphere. So I chose a site with the infrastructure already installed.
I proceeded to the choice of architect. He had recently designed and built his own house and, except for the hay bales on the roof, I loved the place. I knew our aesthetic sense was a good match, and I trusted him to stick to the budget.
He and began discussing the design of the house itself. I’m something of a traditionalist. Moreover, the covenants of the property I was buying required a traditional design.
But my architect was a modernist. What to do?
After a bit of deliberation, the architect decided he had no problem creating an outwardly traditional design. But he kept muttering about “no muntins.”
I couldn’t figure out why he was so concerned about sheep on the property, since I didn’t plan to have any.
I thought he was worried about mutton. But muntins, I soon learned, are those strips of wood, metal or plastic that separate panes of glass in a window. They used to be functional but now they are largely decorative, and they are the default look for many local homes.
My architect said he’d be happy to make plenty of nods to the traditional. But he drew the line at muntins.
So the new house will have no sheep, and no fake windowpanes, either.
The final design concept came together with startling rapidity.
I had mentioned something about liking the Middlebury College “solar decathlon” house. Most of the space was on the first floor, which would suit the old man I hope to eventually become. Plus it was oriented to take advantage of passive solar heating in the winter.
My architect and his partner created the basic design in the course of a couple conversations. Lacking any better idea of what to do, I nodded my assent.
I understand it doesn’t usually happen that way.
At least in the world of home-design magazines — the “shelter books” – working with an architect is a painstaking process, the fruition of years of fantasizing. The homeowner comes to the architect with exactly what she wants, having combed through scores of magazines, books, and design-oriented websites.
The architect and landowner agonize over many months to refine the vision. The architect brings financial reality and design suggestions to the process. The plans go through multiple iterations. Every piece of wallpaper and section of wainscoting, even the kinds of nails in the antique beams imported from Italy — it’s all carefully orchestrated into some kind of architectural orgasm.
Not so for me.
Given my budget and the fact that I had a full-time business to run and friendships to cultivate — and that I like to get more than five hours of sleep a night — I would have to turn over much of the process to the architect.
Fortunately we liked the same things, and I trusted him.
It got to be a bit of a running joke, however.
“What is the front door going to look like again?” I emailed him. “And please remind me about the kitchen cupboards.”
His response included details of the door’s appearance and a link to the IKEA cupboard design.
“Oh yeah,” I emailed back. “I really like that! How did you know? And what do you think I should have for dinner?”
The biggest surprise was how little control I wanted to have.
Here I was making the investment of a lifetime, and I was leaving most of the decisions up to someone else. It instilled a kind of Zen calm in me.
The process, too, was greatly aided by the talents and patience of my realtors, attorney and local bank – reminders again of how many skilled professionals we have in our community.
Who knows? The house may turn out to be a disaster once it’s built.
But I suspect I’ll love it, and that I’ll still be sane enough at the end of this long process to savor the place.
There will be solar hot water and a big view to the north. With any luck, they’ll start grading the site later this month.
– 30 –
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