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.

To build a house. Or not.

When Becky and I decided to build a house, it did seem a bit impulsive. We had just met. When Covid hit a few months later, the idea seemed suddenly improbable. Then impossible. Then, positively insane.

Our original plan was to do what most people do and just buy a pre-existing place—a used house, as it were. So, one very hot Sunday in July 2019, we decided to scope out neighborhoods just north of downtown Carrboro, North Carolina, where I lived.

Becky Broun and I had been dating for less than a year. Indeed, less than two months. Seven weeks earlier we’d met at Caffe Driade, a local institution whose name translates from ancient Greek to “place for online coffee dates.” It’s rather popular with the crowd.

I had an iced herbal tea, having given up caffeine some months before when I realized it was giving me weird bouts of vertigo. Unfortunately, what I’ve just explained here in 24 words I took several hundred to explain to Becky that day, just as we sat down, prattling on as if defending a research thesis. Another woman might have excused herself and raced off in her car. But Becky stuck around until at last I gave her a chance to speak, and by the end of our date we had each pretty much decided our online dating days were over. How we could be so sure, so quickly, is a story for another time.  

Now we were highlighting streets on a paper map so we’d know when to pounce if any of those houses went up for sale. The real estate market had cooled some as summer heated up, but only a little. It was still the kind of market where if you wanted a nice house you had to be there on the day it hit the market with a fat wad of money in each hand.

“Wouldn’t it be great to find a house in walking distance to Weaver Street? Or even better, to build one?” I said to Becky as I lurched my car through tree-lined streets, with one eye in the rearview for cars that might want to get by.

I was referring not to actual Weaver Street but to Weaver Street Market, the cultural centerpiece of Carrboro where people gathered to shop for groceries or fill plates at the food bar for dining under the giant oak trees out front. On Sunday mornings bands play live music there, and I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that more Carrboro residents go to Weaver Street on Sunday mornings than to church. I had worshipped there countless times over pancakes and Mexican scrambled eggs.

Becky agreed. “It’d be amazing to live so close to Benj and Rachel” she added, referring to her brother and sister-in-law who lived on a street just behind Armadillo Grill, another downtown Carrboro fixture. Becky and Benjamin are close. She’s the only person on earth allowed to call him “Benj” and I’m pretty sure they talk on the phone every day.

We’d arrived at Weaver Street and decided to hit the adjacent neighborhoods, slowing to take in the quant mill houses the town is known for: impossibly small structures—tiny houses way before tiny houses were a thing—built for Carrboro’s cotton mill workers at the at the start of the 1900s. Houses are packed tight around here, on some streets like cereal boxes on a store shelf, and the odds of finding a vacant lot are impossibly long. But this was our impossibly lucky day.

Someone else had managed to build a house on an empty lot in this neighborhood—I had watched it go up with envy. We were driving by it now. What I hadn’t noticed before is that the house took up only half of a double lot. But Becky noticed it right away. “There’s a For Sale By Owner sign!”

I slowed to the car to a stop and we both jumped out. The grass was nearly as tall as we were, so we couldn’t see the entire lot and hesitated to go romping through it just yet, but we took down the web address on the sign. As we drove away Becky tapped the URL into her phone, we texted the owner, and set up a meeting.

The next day we pulled up again at the lot and parked. There was now a path mowed in a giant figure eight through the tall grass, and shortly after we arrived a spectacled man with close cropped hair rode up on a small bicycle.

“Hi, I’m Chris.”

We introduced ourselves and thanked him for cutting the path.

“While I was mowing I found a dead deer back there,” he quickly offered up. “The smell was awful and I had to drag it to the curb myself so the town would come pick it up. I’m glad they got here before you did!”

As were we.

Chris had lived in the area for many years, so it didn’t take long for him and Becky, who grew up here, to identify people they both knew. He and his wife had bought half the double lot with the couple who now lived in the recently finished house on the northern half—the one I watched go up. There had been a 1950s brick house here, in bad repair, which the two couples tore down. When Chris and his wife decided to renovate their current house just a few blocks away, rather than build a new one on their half, they put the lot up for sale.

We strode around the path, listening to Chris tell us how great it was to walk to everything in Carrboro, especially the restaurants. “Some nights we just start walking toward Chapel Hill until we smell something that draws us in. It’s pretty sweet.”

Carrboro is adjacent to Chapel Hill, home to the main campus of the University of North Carolina. The college town is known for being one of the more liberal outposts in the southern state, much to the frustration of conservative politicians, of which there are more than a few. The legendary Republican Senator Jesse Helms, when the state was debating where to put a new zoo in the 1970s, is said to have asked, “Couldn’t we just build a fence around Chapel Hill?” Carrboro, just to the west, is even more liberal. “A little to the left of Chapel Hill,” a sign here once said. 

The next day, Wednesday, I called the town hall and spoke with zoning officer James Thomas. He confirmed it was a buildable lot but warned us there was a stream buffer along one side, on either side of a drainage ditch. “You can’t build within the buffer,” he stressed. We’d seen the ditch and didn’t think it would be a problem. On Thursday we gave Chris and his wife a cashier’s check and executed an offer to purchase.

It was done. Becky and I, eight weeks after meeting, and four days after first laying eyes on the lot, had committed to building a custom home, something neither of us had ever done before nor even dreamt we might. The next several weeks consisted of both easy things, like securing hundreds of thousands of dollars of financing and choosing a builder to entrust it to, and difficult things like convincing our families we weren’t out of our gourds.

We hired a local design-build firm to put a house our lot. In September, their architect, after just one meeting with Becky and me, produced plans we loved at first sight. It was a craftsman bungalow with a big front porch–we found ourselves looking at it several times a day. The firm’s owner, our “builder” in construction parlance, told us if they submitted the permit application by end of year then construction could start in February. Neither of those things, it turned out, would happen.

By early March we were growing more frustrated by the day. What could be taking so long? Then frustration gave way to the gratitude when an impossibly small creature, a coronavirus named SARS-Cov-2, began causing the infectious disease COVID-19. It had already wreaked havoc in China and was now grinding life on the rest of the planet to a halt. Restaurants closed (the Weaver Street lawn was eerily empty even on beautiful Sunday mornings), college students all came home, and toilet paper disappeared from grocery stores. I began working from home and set up a desk at a window that looked out on the local health clinic, where I watched them erect a tent for drive-through screenings. Seemingly overnight, life had turned upside down and outside in.

Nobody knew how bad this was going to get. Becky and I had to wonder, if we started construction now, could we finish? Would workers be available? How about all the materials? We had visions of a half-built house rotting in the sun for months. Or years. And what if one or both of us lost our jobs? All that cash we were about to pour into a house might come in very handy.

We put the project on hold. “I’d probably do the same,” our builder offered up glumly when we called him with the news. We told him we were postponing for two months, knowing it might be much longer. It was depressing, pulling the plug like that. But, we decided, it was better to be sad than scared.

Then, with the pressure off, we took a few days to size up the situation. Yes, if the worst of our predictions all came true, then Becky and I would be, as a learned economist might say, really in the shit. But it might not be so bad. There was uncertainty.

There was no uncertainty, however, on the likely effect of pulling the plug on spending hundreds of thousands of dollars. Construction workers would need to look elsewhere for work. Our orders of cinder blocks and two-by-fours and everything else would be cancelled. The national economy was facing its worst crisis since the Great Depression, and we had control over just this tiny little bit of it. But it was our bit.

We might get hurt if we proceed but others will certainly hurt if we don’t. Fuck it, we decided. We called our builder back not two weeks after postponing. Let’s build this thing, we told him, full speed ahead. We could hear his sigh of relief. “This will be one special house,” he said.

To us it already was.