House Design, Uncategorized

Plans and a driveway

We finally got our finished plans from the architect. He’s a pencil and paper sort of guy, so there are no fancy 3D renderings. But I’ll share the elevations, because they’re still kind of fun.

Things will change, slightly, because they always do. But for now, we have a start on the project.

Speaking of changes, the excavators were out to do some preliminary work. They dug out the existing culvert, which was collapsed, and put in a new one. Then they did some clearing. So, we have a usable driveway, for the moment.

And there were the typical small snags. That power line? Super low. Too low to get cement trucks under. So we’ll have to see if we can get the power company to come out and put a pole. The excavators also permitted the septic system. That will, somewhat unfortunately, need to be 2 feet above the current grade. Which means the house will have to come up somewhat more than expected to allow a gravity feed to the septic. It should still all work out, but we’ll likely end up with a small pond toward the back of the property where all that extra dirt will need to come from.

Either way, everyone is pretty sure it can get done and still spare my apple tree. I marked it so the excavators would know to avoid it. I might have gone overboard just a wee bit.

I doubt much more will get done until Spring, now that the polar vortex has everything frozen solid. But it’s nice to get a little bit of a start on things.

Homestead Hopes

Toward an Independent Farmstead

As we move closer to actually breaking ground – probably in the spring, now that subzero temperatures have settled quite thoroughly into the area – I got an E-mail from my builder asking if the architect had provided a site plan. Well, not so much. But I did send him a little plan I had draw up myself.

I’m sure there is a piece of software or handy app somewhere that would have made this a much easier task. But, lacking those, I did a screen capture of the satellite image of our place from the GIS system, and carefully marked the scale. Then I moved it into Photoshop and used an approximation of pixels against that scale to draw little outlines of the buildings we’d like to eventually have on the property. Here it is:

The lighter pink swath is the driveway, leading directly to the house. The garage is set back a little from the front of the house, so that the whole thing doesn’t seem like a garage with a small house attached. North is up, in the standard convention, by the way. The little building furthest to the East is a sugar shack/brew house. That puts it close to the sugar bush, a little away from the house, but not so far that it’s a slog in the snow.

Just North of the house we’ll put the chicken coop, and past that, the barn. Way up at the top? Beehive. I’m hoping to do a Slovenian Bee House. Ideally, I’ll find someone who makes them in that style, sized to the typical American frames so that those are easy to replace.

Most of the wild brush in the front will be cleared away. There is one venerable old apple tree that I wanted saved. It’s quite lovely, and puts out a decent crop even though it hasn’t been pruned or tended in years.

Now what remains to be decided is what, in the short term, will go where. We have plans for a small orchard – more apples, some peaches, pears, and cherries. But they’ll probably need to NOT go where the current tree is. A single tree can be worked around, but a small orchard will need some space. The orchard site will need to be far enough from the west fence row not to be too shaded, and far enough from the walnut trees not to be affected by the chemical that they produce that inhibits other plants.

And then there are the berry patches. Raspberries and blackberries need to be kept somewhat separate from each other AND from the wild brambles that might carry disease. I would like some gooseberries and currant, but we live in a portion of the state where growing them is restricted to certain varieties. The listing doesn’t appear to have been updated for some time, so I may end up trying to compile evidence that some of the newer varieties are resistant to White Pine Blister Rust to get permission. They’re more shade tolerant, but will still need a nice sunny spot.

Regular garden beds should be close to the house so that we both tend and use them. Probably between the house and the chicken coop.

We may have to get that far, and then see how we can best arrange the rest. At the moment, we’re planning to start with some of the smaller livestock (chickens, ducks, rabbits), so permanent pasture and housing for bigger critters might get moved around a bit as we go.

10 acres seems like a lot, until all the sudden it doesn’t.

House Design

Laying Plans

Now that the land is ours, we can move on to other things.

First thing – the people need a place to live.  We need a house.  When we first decided to build, for whatever reason, both of us were thinking “Dutch Colonial.”  Stylish, classic, and not as common as the more ubiquitous “modern farmhouse” – whatever that means.  But (strange as this concept is to some people) the style of a house has some influence over its layout, and how it “lives.”  A Colonial, of any flavor, is a somewhat formal home.  And, if we’re to be honest, we aren’t formal people.

French country was probably still too formal.  The newer “farmhouse” style a bit impractical.  But happening on the Swedish country house brought us much nearer to the mark.

We went through a couple architects before finding someone who had time for us in his schedule, worked into the budget we had for building, and was willing to take it on.  At that, I’m not sure we’d really said “Swedish farm house” at the outset, as that sort of developed as a larger envelope for a working farm house style home as we went.

Now, when I was first contemplating building a house, I was trying very hard to get away from the current uber-trendy “modern farmhouse.”  It’s a nice enough decor style, but it isn’t “me”.  And a lot of the trends are both impractical and likely to become very quickly dated.  I started skewing my search terms to more historical style in order to avoid the trends.  And, in so doing, found and fell in love with the Swedish Tile Stove.  

It’s worth going to visit Meranda at swedishfurniture.com for more information.  She has an excellent post on these beauties, also known as kakelugn, here.  The short version is that these clever masonry heaters can be fired twice a day and kick out heat over the entire 24 hours – all while remaining cool enough to touch on the exterior.  This Autism Spectrum momma loved that idea.  The come in a variety of shapes and a host of colors.  Some plain white, some hand painted, some glazed in all sorts of colors.

They are, however, rather rare birds in the United States.  A small smattering of them exist in Minnesota, to include NINE at the Swedish Institute in the Twin Cities.  But, for my purposes acquiring one meant having the silly (heavy!) thing imported and then rebuilt.  I went so far as to get a couple of quotes on the process that ranged in the $20-25,000 zone.  Ouch.  I gave up on the idea as cost prohibitive.

Then, one frosty morning, just after we’d had our first schematic come back from the architect (and had to send him back to the drawing board when it was about 1000 sq ft too big and way out of our budget), I talked my husband into a trip to Pitsch’s Salvage in Grand Rapids.  Part of my vision for the house is to use enough vintage tidbits and styling to make it LOOK like it’s maybe been there for a long time and is just very well cared for.  So I went in seeking some glass door knobs, other hardware, or maybe a bit of millwork that could be repurposed.  And we found this:

Yes, my ducklings – that is a genuine kakelugn, in pieces, gathering dust.  Lots and lots of dust.  According to the young man minding the shop, it had been there for at least 10 years.  (This started as, “as long as I can remember,”  – being part of the Pitsch clan, this meant he remembered it sitting there even when he was a small boy.  An eternity, given that he was probably 18 or 19?  😉  )  We managed to negotiate a deal for it, aided by two things.  First, we were the first people who’d known what it even WAS.  Second, my boss is related to the owner of the salvage yard.  And likes to make deals.  So away we went with the stove.  In 4 trips.  Because there are a lot of pieces – that are all both fragile AND heavy.

We were also given a picture of the stove in its last incarnation:

This little stove also has a story.  There was a gentleman by the name of Ralph Hauenstein, a local philanthropist and war hero.  I’ll let you go read about him, and his time with Project Ultra here.  According to the salvage yard, the stove had been a gift to Mr. Hauenstein from the Swedish Ambassador, in recognition of his work during the war.  The photo above was taken of the stove at his lake cottage, before it was torn down.

In fact, the stove turns out to be… not so little.  I do believe that in the photo, it was installed without a whole course of tiles in the center – probably because it is already too tall for the space.  Luckily, I have also found a gentleman who is both experience at tile restoration and masonry project as well as fascinated by the stove.  He’s busy cleaning up the pieces and getting it ready to rebuild.

It’s hand painted, with real gold accents.  The tile restoration artist (because that’s what he is) has even managed to match the glaze in order to repair some of the chipped pieces.

This was the final cue that we should design the house as a Swedish Country House – something light, bright, cheery and cozy.   The tile stove will anchor the main living area.  Now – 9,999,999 other decisions to make!

Homestead Hopes

A Bit of Earth

Almost two years ago, now, my husband and I came to a point where we decided that we’d like a bit more space to live our lives.  I’m not sure if it was the neighbor ratting us out for our illicit chickens, the waking up repeatedly to flashing lights in the windows as local police visited the house around the corner.  Again.  Or the feeling of constriction of not being able to use our little yard the way we’d like.  My two daughters are on the Autism spectrum, and not aware enough of danger to be allowed to play outside without really close supervision – very nearly hands on.  We had a few notices stuck to the door by the city regarding various “infractions” of ordinances.  Even when all we really have are two small raised beds for herbs and veggies.

The time had come to seek out something more.  Neither of us are city people to start with.  He grew up on a small farm in western Illinois.  I grew up in a more sprawling suburb in central Michigan – with frequent trips to grandparents’ farms.  We’d try the “soccer mom” life and it was not for us – especially with kids who weren’t on the dance/sports/hand out with friends carousel.

Unfortunately, finding our “bit of earth” was more difficult than we’d anticipated.  First we explored the few listings that were available that matched or came close to what we wanted:  around five acres, some woods and some cleared.  That added up to just a few parcels, all of which had some drawbacks – mostly still being a little too close to town, in a township whose zoning ordinances had the potential to still give us trouble.

Then I got a bright idea.  I fired up the GIS (Geographic Information Systems) map for my county.  This allows you to see ALL the parcels in the county of interest.  When you click on one, you can get information about its size, zoning, and the contact information on the legal owner.  I started marking likely-looking properties – no buildings present, the right acreage, the right school district, and hadn’t changed hands in the last 12 months, or so.  We spent a lot of time driving around looking at parcels and taking family walks down country roads.  We did really prefer to be somewhere with natural gas available at the street, along with electric and cable.  So, some of this was to look for the flags that mark natural gas lines and some to look over the property in general.

Next, I started my letter-writing campaign.  I bought several packages of blank notecards in cute designs with colored envelopes – the kind that look like a baby shower invitation or a thank you note from the outside.  Then I handwrote a note to the owners of the parcel we were looking for, talking about what we wanted to do and asking if they had any interest in selling the parcel in questions, and ending with contact information for both my husband and myself.  We got near a 30% response rate.  And, if you’ve been in sales, you know that’s pretty good for cold calling.  Now, sometimes the response was “we’re not interested,” and sometimes it was for sale – for an outrageous amount of money.  We even got good enough at google-stalking to find phone numbers and follow up with a call.  One parcel was intended for its owner’s retirement home.  Another was a “private hunting reserve.”  Yet another has a long story I might tell someday about an ex-athletic star from my alma mater, a fast-food empire, and 80 acres in the wilds of West Michigan that his wife still doesn’t want to sell even a corner of.  Some properties we got permission to walk.  Some of them even got names.  “Narnia” was down a beautiful private road with an ornate lamp post at the end that we found in the winter.  “Pooh corner” had a fabulous giant beech tree on the edge of a gorgeous meadow.

Don’t name things.  You get emotionally attached, and then can’t get the owner to make a deal.  Also, keep in mind that people can be wildly unreasonable.  If you hear the words “I gotta get $X out of it,” walk away.  You’re dealing with someone who doesn’t understand that his or her financial condition has zero bearing on the worth of the parcel in question.  If you’re talking to someone who is proposing a division that is clearly contrary to the local zoning ordinance – walk away.  Most often they’re convinced they can get the zoning board to make an exception.  Hint:  they can’t.

We began to despair entirely until we finally got a phone call back from the elderly gentleman who owned 10 acres of…  brush.  Or so it seemed from the road.  In fact, he’d planted 3-1/2 acres of it in black walnut trees when he first bought it.  But now, it was too far away from where he was living and he wasn’t able to keep up on it.  None of his children had the means or interest to buy it.  So maybe it was time to sell.

Walnut trees

With his permission, we managed to cut a trail into the property from the road, so that we could access it.  The walnut trees form most of the Eastern and Northern boundaries of the parcel.

The center is a meadow, with a fencerow containing a sugar bush as the Western border.  There are a couple wild apple trees.  Though it must be admitted that it’s wholly infested with Autumn olives, berry brambles (black raspberries and red, maybe some blackberries as well), and multiflora rose.  This effectively gives me a parcel of land that cannot be penetrated easily from any side – a plus when you have children who might be prone to wander.  And, since we agreed to purchase it – we had trouble naming this one.  Walnut creek?  Too Little House.  Mockingbird hill?  No hill.  And I haven’t seen any mockingbirds as yet, though the bird watching is excellent.  But Brambleberry Meadow seems to fit.

The very Southeast corner is cut by a drainage culvert that functions as a small creek.

In fact, despite needing rather a lot of work, it fits the bill for what we were looking for.  While too flat for a walk-out basement, and with too high a water table for any sort of basement, it should do nicely for some of the other plans we have.

Follow along with the saga of getting a house built, setting up a site plan, choosing livestock, planting trees and gardens, and everything that will need to happen to turn an overgrown brushpile into a small farmstead.