Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Home Sweet Home - Part 2

                “This is it,” I told my dad as we climbed out of the car and entered the woods.  Our breath rose in dense clouds around us before being swept away by the biting wind.  A powdery snow blanketed the ground, and the wind chill stood at a bone chilling 13 below zero, yet Dad had dutifully accompanied me to the lot to look it over.  The property was a 1.5 acre patch of woods in an older neighborhood marked by varied architecture (the land being divided at various intervals over time, avoiding the cookie-cutter idea of row upon row of similar houses) and mature trees.  Although it was located well within the town limits, one felt as if he were away from the hustle and bustle of urban life and was nestled in a quiet country woods when entering its boundaries. 
The street in front of our home
                It was a property we had passed often on afternoon walks when my wife and I would venture a little farther from home to seek its shady, winding lanes.  It was one of two undeveloped tracts left in the area.  The original land owner had kept sections in reserve in the hopes her children might someday build there; however, when it was obvious they would live elsewhere, she released them for sale piecemeal.  This particular lot had actually gone through multiple owners, but none had taken the steps to build on it.  Sara and I had been looking for land for months in hopes of building our dream home, and although this was much smaller than the five or more acres I desired, it was too good to pass up. 
Whitelick Creek cutting through our backyard
                The lot itself was a long, narrow, wooded tract transected by a large creek in the back.  The deep ravine carved by the flowing water and the isolated land on the other side probably accounted for one third of the acreage, but it still left us with a wooded acre on which to build.  The front corner was public easement and had already been cleared and had an established “lawn.”   Dad and I stomped our feet to warm ourselves, as we stood at the back of the property, looking out over the frozen creek and the old fishing lake on the property behind us.  I had images of a cozy cabin tucked neatly into these trees, and I could see myself lugging in armfuls of wood on days such as this to stoke a crackling fire inside.  In reality, the end result would in no way resemble that dream, but I had not gotten that far in my thinking.  Dad liked the area and thought it was a worthwhile investment for us, and that was all the encouragement I needed.  Sara and I would make an offer.
                Unlike my icy trip to the property to get my father’s approval, Sara was literally sweating when we showed up to sign the papers.  She was battling a 103o fever, but since we were anxious to get that step behind us, she wasn’t about to let a flu bug stop her.  I felt like a land barren as we signed the mountain of banking and real estate forms, resulting in our owning two properties.  We were mere mites on the scale of landowners, but I enjoyed talking about the home I lived in and the “land” we owned nearby.  It sounded more like a Texas cattle ranch when phrased that way rather than the small, residential lot it was.   And for now, that was just how it was to remain – an undeveloped, residential lot.  I was in the final years of buying into a veterinary practice, and although we could afford the land, building a house was simply out of the question.  We would ultimately wait another four, long years before we could break ground.
My daughter could barely walk when we bought the land.
                There were those who doubted our patience in waiting to build, but we were disciplined and (more importantly) poor, so we succeeded.  However, the small parcel still required maintenance, so each week I would push my lawnmower the half mile from our home to the lot to mow the small patch of grass.  In the fall, I would mulch the leaves and carry them to the back to dump over the hillside.  It literally took longer to walk my mower there than it took to do the work, but I enjoyed my time there.  On Sunday mornings in the spring, I would walk to the back of the woods to watch for migrating warblers or to spy what life might be stirring along the creek’s banks.  On one of my very first visits I looked up and saw what I suspected was a vulture circling overhead.  Grabbing my binoculars and gazing upwards, I quickly focused on the dark form.  Instead of the expected turkey vulture, I immediately noticed this bird had a white head and tail – a mature bald eagle!  I knew then that this was where I was meant to be.  It was my own private escape, and I reveled in my time alone in its quiet recesses. 
Four years later we begin the build.
The years ticked by and my debt to the clinic grew smaller and smaller.  We finally allowed ourselves to think about our future home.  Every few weeks, Sara would return from the store with a new stack of house plan books.  We would devour them, looking at the esthetics of the enclosed homes, their footprint (knowing ours was a narrow lot,) and their general layout.  We would each mark the ones that caught our fancy, and then we would exchange books and review the other’s choices.  In doing so we learned that our tastes in design trended along the same line.    Month after month we continued, but one plan which had appeared in multiple books kept catching our attention.  Finally, it was featured in a magazine, complete with photos of the constructed home, and we were hooked.  This was the house for us.  It would need some modifications to the floor plan, but it had the look we wanted and a layout that seemed very livable. 
The plans that won our hearts
Next came the home tours to pick a builder.  My wife and I have particular tastes, so we wanted a custom builder not some mass producer of homes.  On Sundays we could be found touring the various model homes sizing up the quality of the materials used as well as the workmanship.  My wife started taking suggestions from coworkers and friends who had built, and soon one general contractor stood above the rest.  Bob Craig built quality homes and was known for not cutting corners and for coming in within budget.  We started limiting our tours to only his homes and were even able to speak to some of his clients.  It was always the same – a beautifully built home and a happy owner who reported that Bob was a stickler for detail and focused on quality.  
Armed with a map of our lot and the magazine showing the plans we liked, we scheduled a meeting with Bob.  He had the requisite contractor beard and ruddy complexion, but more importantly he had a pleasant demeanor that quickly put us at ease.  Equally important, he was available to take on the job the following spring.  He didn’t sugar coat things, and let us know up front that the type of house we wanted was going to cost a pretty substantial amount of money, but he thought we could swing it.  To proceed, we would need several sets of plans which he could submit to the various subcontractors for quotes, after which we would meet again to discuss final figures and schedules.   We were put in contact with Nick, a nearby architect, and after a few meetings, we had before us the plans showing our future home.  How exciting it was to see the small floor plan we had found in the magazine take shape into a fully fleshed out home.  We had seen a couple of photos of the magazine version of the house, but we had never seen what each and every side would look like.  I love just about any architectural drawing, but when it is your dream house it is even more special.  Once all the bids came in and we slashed a few things here and there, we signed off on those plans, paid our builder the initial $10,000 and the seven month roller coaster of building a home began.
There are innumerable decisions one must make when building a house, and at times it can seem overwhelming.  There were the decisions over the original design such as giving up a bathroom and closet for an upstairs laundry, changing the original laundry into a mudroom, turning a bedroom into a library, determining the width of hallways, deciding to switch out two small windows for one larger window in each bedroom or switching a small, leaded glass window above the garden tub for a larger one, deciding if there should be a deck and if so how big and should the boards run horizontally or diagonally, to have a chimney or not, to have a cupola or not, do we add built-in book cases, swinging or pocket doors in narrow spaces, finish the basement now or later, should we have an egress window and if so where should it go in the basement, how high should the ceilings be, and the list goes on and on.  Before he could even get bids, Bob asked us to decide how we wanted the house clad (it became brick on the lower half and clapboards above,) what brick color we wanted, what style and color of shingles we wanted, and I believe we had even picked out exterior paint colors.  Along the way we would sit with the carpenter and design cabinetry, pick out the type of wood, the color of the stain, the style of doors and the type of hardware as well as the counter surfaces.  We would make trips to pick out sinks, tubs and toilets, faucets and towel racks, shower units, light fixtures, the gas fireplace, the surrounding tile, carpeting, hardwood and vinyl flooring, blinds for the windows, closet systems, and appliances.  We had walkthroughs with an electrician choosing where we wanted outlets, where to place the recessed lights and where to place speakers and whether there would be wall mounted controls for them.  On any given day, the head framing contractor might stop us and ask if we wanted the staircase moved back to allow more room in the foyer, or how did we want him to finish off the ceiling above the plant shelf, or any number of minor adjustments.  We had been warned that this period would be stressful and one of the most difficult stretches of our marriage, but that could not have been more wrong.  We loved our little field trips to pick out items, and since our tastes seemed to match, making those choices was generally very easy.  In fact, once the house was completed, we went through a period of withdrawal from not having more decisions to make.   To us, this was our dream house and making those choices was akin to creating your Christmas list each year as a child. 
This is not to say there were not stresses during the build.  One of the first issues was our septic system.  We had purchased a wooded lot with the idea of living tucked away in a grove of trees.  In reality, the neighborhood is without sewer and water, which meant we needed a well and septic system.  To insure a well-functioning septic for years to come, we did not want to try to weave fingers among the trees, so this meant the woods we loved so much would have to be cleared.  (It was ironic that we paid a pretty penny to get a lot full of trees only to face the added expense of having to have most of them removed and their stumps ground out.)  It was a precarious time for such an endeavor.  The year’s end was nearing, and the county had just passed more stringent regulations regarding septic systems which were to take effect after January 1.  The net result was that septic fields would be much larger, and there was a very real possibility we would not even be able to fit one on our property. As long as we got the plans approved before the first of the year, we could avoid the new regulations, but our engineer was dragging his feet despite our phone calls urging him along.  Bob, our general contractor, placed a call and used his own form of “urging” and the ball started rolling.  It had already been difficult on paper to place the septic on our property and retain any trees at all.  We at first thought we could move the house back and place the septic system in the front.  This could save the two grand beech trees that perfectly framed the back of our back property, as well as several other large, old trees.  However, the engineer called and said putting it in the front would mean losing every single tree in front of the house.  Desirous of our privacy, we knew that that would not work for us, so we shifted the house forward and looked at the backyard.  The engineer left us saying, “I will make it fit.”  However, in a phone call the following day he told us it would fit, but we would now lose all trees to the creek.  My heart was breaking since I had walked those woods for four years dreaming of the day I could sit back in my easy chair and look out my windows at this little wooded patch.  We even went as far as to investigate an alternative septic system which reportedly could reduce the leaching field to half the area of a typical system.  We had never heard of this and could find no one who had used it to get feedback.  Our builder, being even more skeptical, strongly discouraged us, so we went with a traditional septic system located behind the house.  Here is where we discovered it helps to have friends in high places.  When we took our plans to the Board of Health for review, my wife realized she knew the woman at the desk.  We explained our concerns and she said, “Let’s take a look at your plans.”  I had always thought the size of the leaching field was based on the number of bathrooms, but in actuality it is based on the number of bedrooms and large tubs.  She asked me, “How large is that tub?” as she pointed to the kids’ bath.  I told her it was a 60-70 gallon tub.  “We won’t count that then.  Are there any closets in this library?” and I replied that there were not.  “Then we won’t count that, either.”  She went on to add that if we left off closet doors in the playroom, it could also be excluded.  (I guess it is considered a bedroom if you have a closet with doors.)  In the end, what had been regarded as a five bedroom home was suddenly downsized to a three bedroom home.  The engineer called us the next day sounding very happy and saying the field was over-designed for the new designation and the leaching field had been reduced by about 40%.  In the end, we still lost a huge portion of our trees in the back (including the majestic beeches) but we could keep enough to feel “woodsy” and to screen us from the road and neighbors. 
My beautiful woods reduced to an open lot

 The trees themselves were a major stressor on me.  As I’ve repeated several times, I got the property to live in the woods, but it was becoming quickly apparent that would not be the case.  Not only was there the septic field (which we later learned needed a drain around the perimeter, so trees had to be cleared another 10-20 feet on all sides) but also a house with the necessary setbacks to allow construction, a driveway and access for utilities.  The driveway was a big concern because its best approach took it very close to the largest and most picturesque trees in the front.  We hired an arborist to come out and look things over and tell us what he thought.  He said so much of the root structure would be damaged that the trees would likely die, so they should just be removed up front.  I could not accept this, and when I later discovered there had once been a gravel road running along that very path (providing access to an early gravel pit,) he reluctantly said we could try to save most of them.  We still had to take down one large old maple, but the other maples as well as the beautiful, glistening white sycamore could remain.  Ten years later, only one tree has died and required removal, and that was only two years ago, so I suspect it died of other causes.  I nearly had tears in my eyes the day I had to walk the property and mark all trees slated for removal with fluorescent paint.  I could not even bring myself to mark the two large beeches, and even the tree guys hesitated before removing them.  On more than one occasion they asked me if those trees really had to come out.  The sad and unfortunate truth was that there was no way they could be saved despite all of our wishes.
One day while the trees were being removed, I got a call at work from the woman living next door to our lot.  It appeared that in clearing the trees, the workmen had uncovered a group of baby barred owls who were not yet fully fledged.  They were on the ground and she was very worried about them.  I was unable to get free, but we were able to contact a wildlife rehabber who said if we could catch the owls, she could come by the clinic and pick them up.  So I sent two of my technicians to round them up.  As they pulled up and began searching for the owls, it began to pour rain.  Wet but determined, they continued their search, but they found the baby owls to be rather formidable foes as they tried to catch them.  The birds were quick at scurrying under trailers or fallen logs, and when approached they made a very disturbing hissing sound while clacking their beaks.  The rain was really coming down now and the technicians thought it had begun lightening, but when they turned around the flashes of light turned out to be camera flashes from the crowd of neighbors that had gathered to watch them.  In the end, my staff was undaunted and returned to the clinic with three, angry, hissing down-covered chicks.  The rehabber picked them up a couple hours later, and although she promised to let me know how they did, I never learned their fate.
Digging the well.
The well was another hair-pulling moment for us.  With the entire backyard being required for septic and laws naturally requiring a significant separation between septic systems and the source of drinking water, the well’s location was limited to a relatively small area.  Utilities ran through part of this smaller section, limiting us even more.  The well man chose a spot in our side yard beyond the drive to drill.  After digging only 47 feet they hit water, but the flow was poor, so he continued on.  At 127 feet they hit soapstone, which according to him was the stopping spot when digging a well.  A new location had to be found.  The front corner was out of the question because it was public easement.  At one point, I saw the driller with a divining rod walking the property “witching” for water.  The rod dipped in one area, but it was too close to the house for drilling.  In the end, he was pretty much limited to one corner of the front woods, and we held our breath the next day as he started anew.  Thankfully, only 67 feet down, he hit a descent flow of water giving us an “average” but functioning well.
Basement is dug during dry weather, but rain is on the way!
Water was a problem in another form, as well.  The bane of any construction site is rain, and our home was to be no exception.  Friday, June 16th was to be the day they poured our basement.  The recent rains had left the ground muddy, and the trucks, which were on site before 7:30 that morning were sinking deeply in the muck.  As the last truck was dumping its load of cement, the skies opened up and unleashed a downpour of biblical proportions.  In total about three inches of rain dropped in a very short period of time.  Sara was there as the concrete man dejectedly called our builder.  It appeared they had two options - they could let the concrete set up then jackhammer it out and pour it all over again or do their best and later come back with a 2 inch skim layer to even it out.  The latter option was chosen as the lesser of two evils, and the concrete man left mumbling about the $1000 the morning had just cost him.  He drove over to our builder’s office to commiserate and while sitting there he happened to look at the weather radar on Bob’s computer.  Miraculously, there was a hole in the precipitation that was just about to appear over our area.  His crew hopped back into their trucks and rushed to the site.  I still don’t know how they did it, but they managed to remove the extraneous water and finish off the basement floor.  Thank goodness they did because over the next week, an additional six inches of rain fell.  I give the building of our house credit for ending the drought in Indiana that summer.  Nearly a week and a half later, construction resumed, but not without tractors getting mired down in the wet, muddy clay that was now our property.  Rain would be a constant foe throughout the first half of the build.  At one point, the rains were so heavy and so persistent that the framer started drilling holes in the floor to allow the pooling water to drain to the basement below.  Many weekends were spent working with a large squeegee, moving water to the sump pump in the basement.
Rain and mud

An amusing but embarrassing incident happened shortly after the basement was poured but before any framing was in place.  My wife and I made it a practice of visiting the build site every day, and one evening we were walking around the foundation looking at the progress.  I wanted so much to get a feel for the size of the basement, but I just couldn’t relate by looking from above.  Finally, I just could not resist the temptation and finding a lower section near the egress window, I jumped down to explore.  It was so fun walking around our future basement, and I realized the space felt so much larger when I was actually in it.  What I had not considered, however, when jumping into the basement was how I was to get back out.  I thought I could retrace my path, but try as I may, my aging body could not jump high enough to clear the wall.  Time after time, I stepped back across the basement, took a running start and jumped to grab the wall and climb out.  My feet would scrape along the wall for a moment or two, and then I would fall back into the basement.  Sara was walking the perimeter trying to be a cheerleader and coax me out, but it was little help.  To my great embarrassment, a friendly face suddenly peered over the side and said, “Would you like me to get a ladder?”  It was our future next door neighbor and she had noticed my dilemma.  Sheepishly, I agreed that would be a good idea, and soon I was out of the hole.  Never again did I attempt to explore the basement until there was an official staircase in place.
This cut out for the crawl space was to be one of my escape routes, but I failed.
 But building was not all stress and bad luck.  For us, the summer spent watching our house rise was better than any vacation we could have ever taken.  I would stop each morning before work, check in again at lunch, and we would return as a family in the evenings to inspect each day’s progress.  On many mornings my wife would arrive with a batch of doughnuts and orange juice to keep the workers happy, and we developed a very good relationship with all the subs.  We were interested in what was going on, but we never tried to be bossy or demanding.  If we had a question we would bring it to the attention of Bob and let him deal with it.  We were not about to call out a sub and turn him against us, and I think everyone involved found us an easy couple to build for.  
Rebecca dances while David plays on the Lull
Taking in the view from my future library
 It is such a joy to watch your home rise board by board and brick by brick.  I can remember how once the first floor was completely framed, my wife, who has a much better sense of spatial arrangements than me, walked me through the house trying to point out each room.  The framing of the second floor was even more exciting because for the first time, I could see the beautiful and expansive view that would greet me from my library.  My wife is deathly afraid of heights, but with me and the main framer encouraging her, she managed to nervously climb the ladder to explore the upper floor with me.  My parents also made several visits, and although she was starting to have difficulties, my mother was still able to walk in those days, albeit slowly and with some instability.  Determined to see my developing home, she literally crawled along the gangplank that carried us up to the front door. 
Walls are going up.
"Wow!  It is really starting to look like a house."
Siding goes on
As it took shape, the house seemed so massive compared to the small homes we had previously occupied.  I had a hard time believing this was to truly be our house, but my pride rose with every new addition to the structure.  Building a house is a misleading adventure.  Initially, the house quickly shoots up as framers erect the skeleton of the structure and start closing it in.  I can remember how my wife said, “Wow!  It is really starting to look like a house!”  It was an exclamation she would repeat with each new phase whether it was closing in the framing, sheathing the sides, hanging drywall or painting, but she was right in that each of these phases was one step closer to our finished home.  However, there came a time in the construction that really tried our patience.  After the hustle and bustle and rapid metamorphosis of the framing, it seemed like progress slowed to a crawl.  Electricians running wire, heating and cooling guys placing ducts and plumbers laying pipes were all essential steps, but visually little changed in the house.  Insulation came next, and I can remember watching the insulation crew working on a hot Labor Day morning blowing insulation into the walls and caulking every little crack and seam of our home.  Then came the drywall which thankfully seemed to move the interior along much as the framing had moved the exterior along earlier, but even this process took longer than I had expected.  That’s when we entered the even slower period of trim carpentry and painting.   Bob had difficulty even finding an available trim carpenter, but eventually one was hired, although he was working on another home at the same time.  The painters were busy staining and lacquering all the eventual woodwork, but the carpenter would not always show up to do his part.  However, despite his frequent absences, we watched the trim go in little by little, the doors hung and the staircase take shape.  Trim carpentry is detail oriented and very exacting, so it moves along at a frustratingly slow pace.  We were getting itchy to move into our new home, but it just seemed like construction was stagnant.  Regardless of our impatience, the job did progress and soon the cabinets were being installed and the flooring laid.  Bob warned us that although the house was looking finished, we were still weeks away from moving in.

Brick going on
 To be concluded in my next entry.
Rebecca checking our her future bedroom.


  1. How wonderfully romantic... choosing a plot of land, poring over books of plans and so on together, making plans, making reality from dreams and hopes and wishes.
    You have a beautiful home in a wonderful setting. All well worth the worry and wait I'm sure.
    Happy New Year to you and your family x

  2. ;) Ditto as to what Maggie said! I love reading about all the little details.