Thursday, December 19, 2013

Buy vs. Build

I had a comment on my previous post wondering why we chose to build over buying and what we wanted in our design, so I figured I’d go more in depth and explore these questions a little bit. It's an interesting exercise to go back and remember how this all came to fruition. I’m going to split this up into two posts so I can discuss each question in depth. Both are really great things to think about if you're looking to own your own home.

So, build versus buy. There's no question that buying over building is the most environmentally friendly option. You aren’t using up land that might otherwise be used for farming or left as open space, and you aren’t creating additional waste from new building materials.

An empty field, waiting for a house
The thing that really drew us to build new was these two people, also known as my parents.  First of all, they built their house by themselves back in the late 70s, so I guess you could say this whole thing runs in the family. But the main reason comes down to the fact that I am an only child, I am therefore their only caregiver, and they can’t live in their house if they are at all handicapped. I want them to be able to live on their own for as long as possible (and they want to, too), and since they can’t live in their house when they can no longer climb stairs, the idea came to John and me that we could do some sort of house swap. We'd build a house that they could live in all on one floor with no steps, and when the time came, they'd move into our house and we'd move into theirs. Our house is literally right next door, so for the time being, we can help them with things like plowing their driveway if they can’t do it. This whole plan is a long way down the road, so in the meantime, it'll be great to be next door if we ever have kids, if they need help with something, and of course just to visit. I mean, my parents are still very able. They were climbing ladders right along with us all summer long.

I grew up with both sets of grandparents living far away, while John grew up with the opposite. I missed having my grandparents around for special things like school concerts, or even just everyday things. John was lucky enough to have his grandparents right next door, and we want that not only for any kids we might have, but also for my parents.

In short, being close to family was our main reason for building versus buying, but we were also concerned about the overall health of an existing home. You never know what you might uncover. We definitely would've purchased an older home that needed some work and would then have run the risk of encountering things like lead and asbestos. Those can be costly to remediate, and if not dealt with properly, could greatly impact our overall health and well-being. Many older homes aren't insulated, and in our climate, that's a huge waste of energy. We briefly thought about buying a beautiful old farm house that was for sale for practically pennies . . . until we found out it wasn’t insulated at all. Nothing. Nadda. Zilch. For a house of that size, bringing it up to current insulation standards (or better) would've been a huge cost in addition to all the other upgrades the house needed, never mind hazmat remediation. My advice is to do your homework if you're thinking about buying an existing home and prepare for the unexpected. Buying an existing home is a great option and I'd encourage people to explore that first, but even newer homes need repair and upgrades for health threats like radon.

There are a lot of things to think about when deciding to make the jump to own your own home. You need to look at all possible variables, but realize that there is no perfect option. There are trade-offs and things you sacrifice in both scenarios. If we had bought that old farm house, we would've been much closer to work, but father away from family, which ties into our driving habits. Yes, the house needed a lot of renovation, but we wouldn't have created as much construction waste or disrupted open green space. Regardless of what you decide to do, there are always ways to minimize environmental impacts. I think that continuing to educate people on the impact our homes make on the environment and by teaching people about natural building methods and how they can be incorporated into existing homes as well as new, we can radically change the way our homes impact the earth and ourselves.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

A Foundation, Part 2

Last I left you, we went from a foundation to a house shaped house. So what about the bits in between? I have to say, it wasn't easy. I may have lost my cool more times than I care to admit. There may have been a few walls that were taken down and put back up multiple times, but we kept going because there wasn't any other option. It was exhausting at times, working a full time job, coming home, working on the house, eating dinner, showering, then going to bed, only to do the same thing the next day and the next . . . weeks really mean nothing to me now. Friday? Oh, Friday is not what it used to be. Friday is the transition day before a full weekend of working on the house.

I don't mean to sound like I haven't enjoyed my time. I have, most certainly. Sure, it's been hard, and I knew it would be, but there's also something amazing about working with your hands and actually accomplishing something tangible. It's so satisfying to look around after you've hit a major milestone and realize that you did this. You. Well, a few other people, too. But mainly you.

So anyway, here's what happened after our footers were poured. The foundation contractor poured the walls after the footers had cured a bit. Then the forms came off the walls bright and early on the Fourth of July. It was pretty exciting, I must say, to come home and suddenly have walls in this big hole in the ground. They really did a great job despite the fact that the walls are 6 inches taller than they are supposed to be. But we can make the height thing work.

Foundation poured, with the forms still in place
Admiring our freshly exposed foundation
The next step was to waterproof the walls, which has definitely been my least favorite job to date. Imagine being in this damp, hot, narrow alley between a concrete wall and a wall of dirt. Then imagine dipping a giant roller in asphalt, which smells horrible, and then rolling it on the wall, all while trying not to sink into the ground, fall into the dirt, or worse, fall into the asphalt-covered walls. And good luck not getting it all over yourself. We may have just thrown our clothes out after this job was done. Oh and then times two coats. It was not fun, but it was necessary so that our basement stays dry.

The narrow "alley" with the forms still on
John waterproofing
After the asphalt dried, we put the foam up on the outside of the foundation. This was really easy given that our walls are eight feet tall and the sheets of foam are also eight feet tall. We just globbed on some adhesive and lined them up on the wall. Some of the adhesive did let go because the asphalt was a bit tacky from being in the sun, but we stuck the sheets back up and once everything was backfilled it wasn't a problem at all since the stone helped to hold everything in place.

Waterproofed and ready for foam

Backfilling with stone. There's also a drainage pipe under all that stone
so everything stays nice and dry (we hope).
Thanks for reading! I'm hoping to keep this blog updated with our current progress as well as with what we've done. There's a lot to catch up on!

Thursday, November 28, 2013


A whole summer has gone by and I haven’t posted once. Let’s blame it on the fact that I was working on the house until 9pm most nights, shall we? Then dinner, then a shower, then sleep . . . then my day job, then more building, etc. You get the picture, right? We’ve been busy, which is a severe understatement.

So this is where we are. Obviously not as far along as we had hoped, but it is what it is. It’s not that we didn’t work hard (because we did), but there are only so many hours in a day and there’s only so much that a limited number of people can do. There were setbacks and we’re learning from our mistakes. We’ve done the best we could do in the time we had, so here we are. We’ll be getting the roof on in a few weeks and then we’ll wrap the whole thing up like a Hanukkah present (see what I did there) and work inside through the winter. We clearly didn’t beat the snow, but hopefully we’ll be ready to move in late spring or early summer. Despite everything, I am so proud of what we've accomplished. It's hard to believe that we actually did this. Sometimes we look around and think, really? How did this happen? How did we get here?

Since it’s Thanksgiving and I have a lot to be thankful for this year, I thought I might share a few things.
I’m thankful for my parents, who have supported us, helped us, advised us, fixed all the things, and taken us in. Without them, we’d be homeless, in more ways than one. 
I’m thankful for the support of our friends and family who have believed in us throughout this whole process. And I’m thankful that after a little bit of explaining, they don’t think our straw bale house is all that crazy (or maybe they do, they just don’t have the heart to tell us). 
I’m thankful for our friends near and far who have taken time out of their busy lives to help us in the sun, heat, rain, and snow.  They’ve helped us in so many ways that stretch far beyond physical labor. 
I’m thankful for our designer and our engineer who have both been so responsive when we ask easy (and sometimes difficult) questions. 
I’m thankful for my coworkers who have offered advice and guidance where I would have otherwise been completely lost. 
I’m thankful for my employer for being really understanding about taking time off. I’m thankful for simply having a job, without which we would not be able to finance this house. 
I’m thankful for YouTube and the internet and their endless wealth of information. 
I’m thankful for Mother Nature for being relatively kind to us this summer, given how the early part of the year was. 
I’m thankful for the strength of my body. Before we began, I wasn’t sure I could physically (or mentally) do this, but I have proven to myself time and time again that I strong and capable. That’s not to say I haven’t had my fair share of breakdowns or achy bones, but I’ve made it this far. I can make it the rest of the way. 
And I’m thankful, most importantly, for John. I'm thankful for everything he does, for being there through it all, for making me laugh and showing me that I am capable, for believing in me and believing in us, and most importantly, for working so hard to make our dream come true.
I hope you all have a wonderful Thanksgiving and find something, no matter how small, to be thankful for this year.

Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Foundation

^^ Wild strawberries in the field ^^
Last year, on the fourth of July, we made the trek down to Ithaca to meet with Sarah about designing our house.  We talked with her about possible layouts and what we wanted in a home in general.  She gave us some really great things to think about, and we left with so much excitement about what we'd be taking on.  And here we are, a year later, finally getting started on that project that was really just a dream at the time.

^^ Foundation excavation in progress and our excavator deciding what to do next. ^^
^^ Footers poured and ready for walls.  And John contemplating his bike. ^^
^^ Reclaimed insulation that will be used in the foundation. ^^
Foundation work finally started last week.  Rain and some other variables held us up for a bit longer than we would have liked, but the footers are in and the basement walls should be poured early next week (fingers crossed for tomorrow).  The first load of lumber will be arriving then as well, which means that we should be able to start vertical construction by the end of next week.  Since we're starting later than we would have liked, it will really be a race to the finish to get our certificate of occupancy by fall.  We'll just have to put in longer hours and hire help where we might not have originally planned, but the goal is to be living in the house by fall.  Then we'll spend the winter and next summer (and years after that, really) doing the finish work.

^^ My mode of transportation from the camper to the site. ^^
Life in the camper has been an adjustment, but we've settled into a routine that seems to be working pretty well for us.  I'm sure everything will be turned upside down once we're working every night, but it'll all work itself out somehow.

Monday, June 3, 2013


[ wild and crazy stormy sky ]

No matter how scared I may be, the way I deal with stress is either one of two ways.  One: Ignore it. Hide under the sheets. Do anything else but what I should be doing.  Two: Jump in there face first and cross things off my list because if not now, when?  And if not me, then whom?  Lately I’ve been doing the latter because before, I was doing the former, plus crying, which is how I deal with most things.  Moving is stressful enough, let alone when you add on a heaping pile of storage unit and an extra serving of dog in a new environment, namely a camper.  Oh, this past week.  You were a rough one, to say the least.  But we made it through thanks to some super strong and able friends.  This is our life now, and the awkward feeling after you move can only get better, right?  The stress of moving will soon seem like a pittance compared to the stress of construction.

The big news: we finally got our building permit and should be underway in the next week and a half or so, hallelujah!  I used the full force of my Jewish Guilt to my advantage two weeks ago and wouldn’t you know?  It actually worked.  What could have taken 2-4 weeks (um, 4? What?) took literally 24 hours.  Major thanks to the Health Department for working faster than any county/state-run agency I have ever encountered, and also to Mother Nature for providing a beautiful day for the inspector to come take a look at our site.  And to our building inspector who graciously gave us a building permit.

Now things start to really get crazy.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Still Waiting

We're still here.  We're still waiting.  Oh, how I hate that we are still waiting.  The plan was to be in the ground at this point, but we can't really help the weather or make paperwork move faster.  In the meantime, we're spreading gravel, putting in a mailbox, mowing the lawn (at least until the mower dies in the middle of the job), and making lots of phone calls.

And crossing our fingers and toes that we can get building soon.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Slow Progress

Lately it seems like things have been moving at a snail's pace.  A lot of waiting for one thing to happen before something else can.  Or waiting on other people and pesky paperwork.  It feels like I'm always on the phone with one person or another, but somehow we keep checking things off the list, though some are admittedly bigger than others.  It feels good to get things done, but then I think of everything else ahead of us and I don't feel as accomplished.  I just have to keep reminding myself that every little step will add up to one big whole.  One step at a time.  A little every day.  Ever onward.

I'd figured I'd share a few photos of what's been happening lately.  The snow has finally melted and we're working on prepping the site.  Our camper was delivered a few weeks ago and I am mentally preparing for our move.  I'm physically preparing, too, of course.  We've started packing up our little stone house and I have to admit, it's harder than I thought it would be.  It's been a good little house and we surely will miss it.

A man, his shed, and snow on the ground

You have to have the right tools for every job

Cutting the driveway

 Home sweet home

Sunday, March 3, 2013


First and foremost, our subdivision has been approved by the town!  Now we just have to have the deed turned over to us and we will officially own the land.  A seemingly small step in a sea of small steps.  Lots of arduous planning has been going on over here.  We've been getting quotes from subcontractors, choosing windows, thinking about what kind of finishes we might want, and thinking about things that aren't so fun, like septic systems.

Secondly, please allow me to talk about something somewhat related, but also not.  About a month ago, I took a trip to New York City to visit with friends.  One last trip before building begins.  I have no idea when I’ll get there again, so I figured I’d better go now.  I picked a really nerve-wracking weekend to go, of course.  But I somehow managed to fly out early enough to miss the worst of winter storm Nemo, and also flew back late enough that the clean-up was already done.  It really could not have been better.  Thanks for being on top of your game, New York.

But anyway, to the point, shall we?  I’ve been thinking a lot about houses and what they mean to us, so on this most recent trip to New York, I decided to drag my good friend to Crown Heights in Brooklyn (in the snow and cold) to find the old houses where my dad’s grandfather, mother, and father lived.  I’d heard a lot about these places but had never been.  And to my surprise, they were still there (though I can’t vouch for how much they look like they used to).  

The first house that my grandmother says she remembers

This building was thought to have fallen into the street, but instead it’s somehow still standing.  My great grandfather’s medical practice was in the back on the first floor, and the rest of my family occupied the upper floors.

My grandfather's apartment building

I wonder if bits of their spirit are somehow still in there.  I think this about the places I’ve lived as well, even places I was not too fond of.  Do we leave invisible bits of ourselves in our homes that stay there for as long as the building stands, or even beyond that?  There is of course superficial evidence of our having been there.  Doors, windows, trim.  But what about the intangible things -- the spirit of the place?  What makes someone “get a feeling” about a house?  Is it because we’ve left a bit of our soul there and they can sense our joy and all the happy times we’ve spent there?  Can they sense the sadness felt when you leave somewhere behind and they know this place is something special?

My mom's parents at their house on Long Island

It was hard for me when my grandparents' house on Long Island was sold.  They built it after the war when Long Island wasn’t the never-ending strip mall that it is now, and my grandmother lived there until she couldn’t care for herself and moved to assisted living, at which point my cousins moved there.  It had been part of our family for so long and it was hard for me to grasp that there would be no more Christmases there.  No more lobster feasts on the back porch.  But I can still see it vividly when I close my eyes.  I can still remember the feeling of waking up there.  I remember the sweet smell of the air.  It will always be a part of me and I a part of it for having been there, just as it will be for everyone else in my family.  And those houses in Brooklyn that I had never seen until a month ago?  Those are a part of me, too, because they shaped the people who lived there and that spirit undoubtedly was passed down through each coming generation.  Our homes play a huge role in making us the people we turn out to be.  They change us in ways that nothing else could, for better or worse.  Even a place that we hated.

Maybe someday I’ll have the courage to knock on one of those doors, and when I do I wonder who I’ll find.  Perhaps a young family, trying to eke out their own little way in the world with the same passion and drive as my great-grandfather, grandmother, and grandfather.  Not just a roof over their heads, but a home.

Friday, February 8, 2013


On the afternoon that Punxsutawney Phil did not see his shadow and predicted an early spring, in about four inches of snow, John, Sarah, and I marched out into the field to mark out the spot where our house will be.  Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures, but there really isn’t much to see.  It’s just a big, imaginary square, marked on the corners by some old pieces of rebar, but it’s become all that much more real.  I can stand in that square now and say, “Here I am in the kitchen.  Here I am in the living room.  Here I am in our bedroom.”  Someday that imaginary square will be a foundation, and then a frame, and walls, and a roof.  And our kitchen.  Our living room.  Our bedroom.  It’s hard to believe that we will be able to live in that box.  It really does look much smaller when you see it there on the ground, but I know it’s just as it should be.

After Sarah helped us mark the four corners, measure the grade of the site, and check to be sure we were well enough away from the property lines, we worked through some more planning.  Window sizes and locations, framing details, roofing, plumbing, electrical . . . all of those things you need to think about before you even stick a shovel in the ground.  It’s so much to think about and it’s hard for me to wrap my head around what needs to be done.  I have lists upon lists, but it will be much easier when tasks can be broken down into weeks, days, hours.  Right now the to-do list is almost unfathomable because we have no idea when we can start.  We have goals and target dates, but are they realistic, not knowing when our foundation will be installed?  There’s no real way of knowing.  But once we can actually break everything down into more concrete dates—micromanage, in the best sense of the word—I will feel much more at ease.  And even though those dates will inevitably shift, the ballpark timeline will be more realistic.

So for now, we’ll focus on what’s crucial.  The rest will fall into place once we get in the ground and have a permit.  Spring is fast-approaching, after all.  Punxsutawney said so.

p.s. I’ve fixed the comments here so anyone can comment.  Feel free to leave your thoughts!  I’d love to hear from you all.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

The Camper

(Our "roommate," Kaleb)

Ah, the camper.  We're on the hunt to find one that will house us and the dog while we're building the house.  It's actually kind of tricky because we have absolutely no frame of reference for which brands are reputable or which ones say, leak like a sieve.  And what is a decent price and what is a ripoff.  We won't be travelling anywhere in it as we don't plan to keep it after we've moved into the house, but it still needs to be decent enough that we won't worry about putting our feet through the floor boards.  We looked at a bunch yesterday and I'm already overwhelmed!

Living in this thing will definitely be a lesson in learning to live with less, which is something I truly do need to learn.  I am a product of the 21st century, no doubt about it.  I tend to collect things that I shouldn't and it's sometimes hard for me to part with things even though I don't have an immediate need for them.  We'll be keeping most of our things in a storage unit so the camper will house the barest of essentials.  I'm planning to do a giant clean out when we move so that we don't move things to the storage unit, and ultimately the house, that aren't needed.  When I moved back and forth from college, I was really good about doing a clean out every time, but since we've lived in the same place for four years, this hasn't happened on a house-wide scale.

Camper living won't be easy at first and there will definitely be a period of adjustment, but I know in the end it will be really good for us.  I mean, isn't it a part of what this whole endeavor is about?  Creating a better, more healthy space from the inside and out?  Living a sustainable life, keeping only what we truly need and what fulfills us?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Straw Bale

A little over a year ago, John and I attended a straw bale construction workshop taught by Andrew Morrison of where we learned to build an actual straw bale home by . . . well . . . building one!  We spent a week raising walls, prepping for utilities, installing windows, and plastering.  It was an amazing experience that really got us excited about straw bale.  We had pretty much decided before we went that this was the route we wanted to take, but after actually participating in the building process, we decided that this was definitely what we wanted to pursue.

We get a lot of strange looks when we tell people we are building a straw bale house.  People probably assume you are going to be living in a big pile of straw, which is obviously not the case!  Our house will be timber frame with straw bale as the insulation (similar to the photo below).   You can build a load-bearing straw bale home (where there is no other structural system besides the bales), but that's not the route that we're taking. Once the straw has been installed, it will be plastered to seal everything, creating a stucco-like look.

(image via Mother Earth News)

Straw bale homes are not only beautiful, but their construction is better for the building's inhabitants.  Because straw is a natural material, it doesn't contain the harmful substances that fiberglass insulation, for example, contains. Straw is a great insulator, which will make our house far more energy efficient than a conventional home. And it's just downright beautiful! You can check out more photos and a plethera of additional information on straw bale here.