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Land Ho: Homestead Design Part 2

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In my last installment (Organic Farms, Folks and Food, Vol. 21 No. 2) I discussed some of the early influences that came to bear on Laurie's and my house design decisions.  In this article I will continue the narrative and continue to explore that process.  When I left off we were in the middle of designing a "practice building," a utility building where we would develop the methods and skills necessary for the actual house building process. 

By the spring of 1990 we had developed fairly sophisticated plans for the 24-foot by 48 foot two story utility building that would become known to us as "the Shop."  Meanwhile we were continuing the fruitless and often frustrating process of looking for a suitable piece of land.  (The full story of that search can be found in Organic Farms, Folks and Food, Vol. 19 No. 2.)  Finally in that spring our persistence paid off.  We found a piece of land we thought would suit our needs.  Mind that we did not think then that it was the "perfect piece."  As a choice it represented a compromise in several dimensions.  We had wanted a south-facing slope.  The general lay of this land was decidedly southeast.  Where we were looking for trees to build with, our first impression of this land was its abundance of pioneer species like aspen, ash, alder and gray birch which overran abandoned pasture.  These were not what we imagined trees for building would be like.  At 68 acres it was more land than we needed and its price tag was more than we imagined we could afford.  Nevertheless we knuckled down, pushed our doubts aside and bought the place. 

Over the next few years I came to realize that the land you live on is like the person you love.  Your initial infatuation may focus on a single thing; a smile, the curve of a shoulder, an enchanting tone of voice, or in the case of land, a south-facing slope, a magnificent view or a good school system.  As a relationship matures those first things may come to seem trivial.  Other things take their place.  The relationship becomes more complex.  Infatuation is replaced by love.  So it was with our developing relationship with the homestead.  It was several years before we determined with certainty where the corners of the property were.  Although we made frequent forays to different areas of the homestead, it was probably as many years before we had visited every bit of it.  (I should note that the 68 acres is contained in a rough rectangle measuring about 1200 feet by 2400 feet.  It sounds small until you attempt to circumnavigate the complex topography of its wooded hills.)  Even now, after 13 years, we are discovering that from season to season different areas of the land can offer up unique surprises.  We have often said that the homestead reveals its secrets slowly, and this is true to this day. 

The ongoing revelation of secrets had a profound effect on our building process.  Our first impression of pioneer trees in overgrown pasture was replaced with a picture of a complex and variegated ecosystem.  The aspens and ash gradually gave way to mixed hardwoods as one moved up the slope of the land.  Maple and beech mixed with bitternut hickory, basswood and yellow birch.  On the steeper slopes oaks clung to the fractured boulders.  To the east shagbark hickory dominated.  At a high point near the center of the north line was a nearly pure stand of mighty hemlocks.  Towering above the surrounding vegetation they were a giant instrument to catch the west wind and make it audible for us sheltered below.  Because we were working at that time on the plans for our barn/utility building, we started to imagine specific trees becoming specific parts of that building.  We started taking casual inventories, wondering if we could find enough ash for sill timbers or enough maple for second-floor joists.  This in turn influenced the development of the plans themselves.  We decided we would have to use several different species of wood but each component would group like with like.  Purlins might be a different wood than rafters, but all the purlins would be the same species of wood, as would all the rafters.  From this general rule we began to assign species to our plan.  We made a decision early that we would not use any oak in the shop.  The property had been selectively logged for oak in the early 80's and was still recovering.  We wanted to save what oak we could harvest for the later house project. 

We decided to use ash for our sill timbers and first floor joists because it was our most rot-resistant wood after oak.  We selected yellow birch for the second-floor bearing timbers since birch is structurally the strongest wood we have and the second-floor beams carried not only the floor joists but also queen posts and, therefore, a substantial chunk of the roof load.  (For information on the structural characteristics of wood our primary source was  Understanding Wood by Bruce Hoadley.)  Other decisions were made based simply on the quantity of wood we thought we could harvest. 

By the time these decisions were being made we had purchased a sawmill and were experimenting with making our own lumber.  We had settled on a small portable bandsaw mill called a RipSaw made by BetterBuilt Corporation in Massachusetts.  The manufacturer claimed it would mill trees up to 20 inches in diameter. (We have since milled trees as large as 30 inches in diameter.)  It weighed just 45 pounds and could be carried into the woods, so trees could be milled where they fell.  It was powered by a chainsaw motor and, while it was expensive, its price was still much less than half that of its larger cousins like Wood-Mizer or Timber King.  Our first experiences with the saw convinced us that it would do what we wanted to do.  We also discovered that "pioneer species" make good utility wood.  We were ready to start the real work of building our first building.

While much of our energy was focused on the construction of the shop, the house was never far from our minds.  Within a year of purchasing the property we had selected a house site.  There are several streams on the property.  One in particular cuts nearly through the center.  It drops precipitously nearly 200 feet over its course and during the spring runoff it is quite dramatic.  On the east side at the bottom of the stream there is a knoll which we thought a perfect site for a house.  The knoll faces nearly south sloping moderately to the north at about 1 foot in 4 or 5.  It rose gently west to east also, and overlooked the stream from a fair height.  We mapped the topography of the site and started to kick around ideas for a general shape that might fit there.  Because of the slope it was apparent that a good bit of the house would be below ground level.  While we didn't want to build an "underground house" we thought it would be a good idea to take advantage of some of the benefits afforded by building below grade, the most important of these being the sheltering and insulating effect the earth can have.  We quickly realized that a 30 foot-wide house that started at ground level on that slope would be 7 or 8 feet below grade at the back.  This seemed cave-like to us and we began exploring other options.  Gradually there emerged an idea that we called the chutes and ladders house.  It was a house with multiple levels the basic shape of which was dictated by two things - the slope of the land and the need for a high (two-story) south face for solar gain.  The shape was a wedge, high on the south side and shrinking into the hill on the north.  The interior layout followed the lay of the land.  Most southerly was a sunspace which, stepping up 2 feet, led into a living room.  From there moving north one stepped up four feet to the kitchen/dining room area, then switching back south and rising an additional 4 feet to the bedroom/bathroom area above the living room.  Beyond the kitchen on the north side was a root cellar which, because of the slope of the hill, would be completely below ground level.  There was an attic space 4 feet above the bedroom level complete with its own separate stairs.  The footprint of the building measured 36 feet east to west and 50 feet in the north-south direction.  With a basic shape and floor plan in hand we were able to begin working on construction details in spare moments among our other projects.

One rainy day we were sitting at home with a little time on our hands when Laurie said, seemingly out of the blue, "I've been thinking about the house."

"Thinking about the house?" I asked apprehensively.  "You're not thinking about changing the plans, are you?"

I'm just saying maybe we should think about them some more," she replied defensively.

I was aghast.  Putting the plans to paper, even the rudimentary drawings we had thus far produced, imbued them with a kind of sacredness for me.  Changing them at that point was unthinkable.  Nevertheless, Laurie persisted and eventually I was dragged kicking and screaming back to the drawing board. 

She was right, of course.  There were several problems with the plans.  First of all, at over 2000 square feet of living space the house was huge.  It included a 20-foot by 36-foot living room and a kitchen/ dining area that measured 16 feet by 36 feet.  Laurie pointed to the living room and asked, "What are we going to do in here?"

"Well, it's a living room," I replied.  "I guess we're going to live in it."

"No, we're not," she retorted.  "Every place we've ever lived, we've spent most of our time at the kitchen table.  That's where we hang out."  She said this sitting opposite me at the kitchen table, the house drawings between us like an uneaten waffle.  She was right again.  I had always been a kitchen person and that was not likely to change. 

Still trying to save the plan, I said, "We talked about having the loom and sewing machine and stuff down in this area."  I indicated the east end of the massive living room.

"We did say that, but look at where that is in relation to the kitchen."  The access to the kitchen/dining area was on the west side of the living room, but the kitchen was in the northeast corner of the house, as far away as one could get from the area I indicated.  Laurie continued, "I don't think that we want the two areas we use the most to be so far apart.  And I don't think we're going to want to hang out in a kitchen that's in the darkest, least accessible part of the house.  We need to imagine how we will live in this house." 

This conversation, as difficult as it was, marked the beginning of a new phase in the design of the house.  No longer carved in stone, the plan became a dynamic, evolutionary process ready to accommodate ideas as they came up whether it was from the land, materials, whim or changes in the way we actually wanted to live.  In my next installment I will talk about how all these things have contributed to moving the house project forward and (more importantly) sideways.

Along with his partner, Laurie Freeman, Jim is planning on moving into the house of their dreams by Thanksgiving of the current year.  Planning is everything.

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