To plan a house

Houses nowadays are built twice. The first creation uses software to produce plans. The second uses mortar mixers, nail guns, and all manner of hardware to produce an actual dwelling where one can watch TV, make a pee, and otherwise live a life. We thought our first build would be lots of fun and parts of it definitely were. Some parts definitely were not.

Before we’d even bought our lot we met a local builder who’s built lots of houses in Carrboro we think are quite nice. When he told us we wouldn’t need to hire an architect, that we could just show him photos of houses we liked or draw a sketch, and he would create construction plans for a fee well below what any architect would charge, we were ecstatic.

Becky and I had already agreed we liked Craftsman homes, a classic American style of dwelling from the early 1900s. She quickly gathered lots of photos she’d found on Houzz and I got to work with a pencil, ruler, and big pad of paper. I sketched a handsome foursquare, complete with a view from the street and a top view showing where all the rooms might go, and a carport off the back of the house. The local builder thought they were great and said to keep going.

A week or so later we all met for coffee at Johnny’s on Main Street (back when one could do such things) and this time I had several sheets of paper, taped together to form detailed plans that spanned the length of the table. I had toiled for hours on these things and thought they were pretty good. “Let’s see here,” the local builder said as he moved his coffee cup and took in the dimensions on my sketch. “That’s almost five thousand square feet!” My house was twice the size of what we could afford. Suddenly I saw my plans for what they were, an artifact of enthusiastic naïveté.

We needed an architect. Becky tapped into her enviable network of friends, built over a lifetime spent in these parts, and before long we had interviewed three: Bill Waddell, Jody Brown, and Sophie Piesse. Each blew us away and left us in a quandary over who to go with. While deliberating, we continued thinking about what kind of house we wanted, and for ideas went to look at nearby houses nearly every day. One of them was the fight house.

It’s a gorgeous one-story home on Hillsborough Street, with a built-out attic and secondary structure I really liked. I liked everything about the place, in fact, and wanted Becky to like it just as much. She, wisely, takes more time when deciding what she likes and pushed back a bit. She said something—neither of us can recall what exactly—that seemed, to me, to contradict advice one of the architects had given us. “Are you saying Bill lied to us?” My stupid remark stopped Becky in her tracks.

“How can what I just said make you say that?”  That’s when the excitement of planning our dream house tipped into anger and resentment. It was… not fun. The argument continued after we climbed into our car and drove away, ending before long with a truce, a genuine hug, and a decision to let an architect listen to what we both had to say then tell us what they thought. Like a marriage counselor.

We decided to hire Jody Brown after a few quick rounds of rock-paper-scissors. Not really. It was his portfolio, which happened to include a modern take on a Craftsman that we both loved. When we met to begin the design process Jody gave us each a list of words—hundreds, including different shapes, colors, styles, and whatnot—and asked us to independently check off those we liked. Silently, handing back my sheet, I thought it seemed silly. He also asked lots of questions you would expect – how many bedrooms, how do we feel about porch space, and so on – and spoke in a casual way that made us think we were chatting with a good friend who happened to also be a licensed architect. I wondered if it was too casual, and grew concerned that he seemed to say yes to everything we said.

Our only concern at that meeting was his answer to what we thought was a reasonable question: Would he give us three sketches of rough ideas, so we could select one before spending more of his time? This time he said no. He would give us only one design, but if we didn’t like it we could ask him to start over. We could do that as many times as we wanted until he designed a house we loved.

We left with more than a bit of anxiety. How long would this take? How many designs would Jody have to produce to make us happy? The answer, it turned out, was one.

On the last day of September, not two weeks after our meeting, Jody emailed us a PDF. I called Becky and, not wanting to influence her, asked her what she thought. “What do YOU think?” she answered. “No,” I insisted in the flattest voice I could muster, “you go first.” “Well… I really like it,” she said. “Me too!!” I yelped. “Do you mean it?” she responded. “I really REALLY mean it!”

We still don’t know how he did it. Maybe it was the goofy word quiz or maybe, and this is more likely, Jody is just a damn good architect, and this is what damn good architects can do.

Jody made a few more drafts for us, adjusting things like the number of bedrooms and other interior aspects. We changed not one single thing about the exterior. When we figured we were now done with the planning stage, in mid-October, we learned otherwise. Jody would now need to create construction plans with thousands of additional details. That took another three months. And when those plans arrived, we knew why. I couldn’t have made these in three years.

When printed, the first creation of our house fills 28 pages with elevations, electrical and framing plans, roof plans and more. Arranged side by side, the resulting quilt of paper would cover the entire floor of a typical bedroom. Plans like this used to be called blueprints, for the color of the light-sensitive paper, so tinted due to the infusion of ammonium ferric citrate, against which a tracing paper sketch was pressed under glass and placed under a strong light, thus transferring the sketch to the blue paper. I know! I’m quite a nerd when it comes to such things!

Jody’s construction plans are in black and white. Putting color onto all those squares, triangles, and rectangles was up to us, with some great tips from Jody. The color selection process involved more than a little bit of disagreement between Becky and me, but nothing approaching the level of a fight. In matters of taste there can be no dispute, the old saying goes, so when one of us didn’t like a color the other did we just moved onto the next one. There are only about a million or so to choose from. Jody was kind enough to put our Sherwin-Williams colors onto his plans, and we ended up with one plan we like a lot. We need to test it out with real paint, but we think we’re pretty close.

“There’s the fight house,” one of us will say to the other as we pass by that house on Hillsborough Street nowadays. It makes us smile. And it makes me grateful. Genuine conflict tests a couple’s mettle like nothing else, and passing such a test, by talking about it and learning from it, as we did, feels really good. So does looking at those plans.