In a fit of reminiscence, I’ve decided to take you on a journey through our past house designs. While I can’t post pictures of them all (some have been left behind during moves, thrown away, or buried so deep in boxes that only the most wary searcher could find them), I can provide descriptions. This should finally cement the fact that we are arguably the most indecisive people on the housing market, especially once you see the final picture.
We started our dreaming long before we even had kids. We wanted an acre or two in the country with a big house. Not just average big, but McMansion big. We drew plans for houses with kitchens the size of entire small apartments. We included work-out rooms with a wall of mirrors, personal movie cinemas, twice as many bedrooms as we would ever need in our lifetime, and dining rooms big enough to seat two dozen guests comfortably. We were dreamers, stuck in the popular mindset of bigger is better and put-it-all-on-a-credit-card thinking. I have no doubt that we could have afforded such luxurious accomodations if my husband had stayed several years overseas, but I’m glad to say that we have learned a fair bit since then. We no longer dream quite so big.
When our boys came along, we started getting into the homesteading subculture. The house plans shrunk down to 2-3 bedroom homes of a modest size, mostly two stories with attached garages and spacious interiors. Everyone we had ever talked to had these kinds of homes. These were the homes being built in every new subdivision. To us, these were the only options we had – the only options any person had.
Around this time we purchased our first home in Indiana: a 1600 sq ft fixer upper. Being new to the housing market, we wanted a house we could sink our teeth into and remodel into something of our own. What we got was more than we bargained for. Not only did it need a new roof, but new rafters and joists because all the moisture leaking through had nearly rotted it through. The bathroom was drywalled and fitted poorly with ramshackle plumbing that leaked into the floor and walls. There was no heat or electrical outlets upstairs. The walls were slowly pushing outward near the roof, since the entire roof structure was going bad, and that meant that not one room in the house was anything near square. Almost all of the windows needed to be replaced. All in all… it was a typical, overpriced piece of junk purchased by a couple of starry-eyed adultlings during the height of the housing bubble. To make a long story short, that bubble burst along with my husband’s job. We were forced into a deed in lieu of foreclosure just to get out from under it.
After that fiasco, we had a mountain of debt to pay off, two baby boys, and horrible credit. Our housing dreams changed significantly. We explored alternative methods of construction: strawbale, earth berm, rammed earth, cob, cement block, log, etc. We knew we couldn’t afford a mortgage, and would probably be laughed at if we ever tried to get one again. We knew we would have to build something that we could live in while still half-finished, and we’d have to build it ourselves. We looked into tiny houses. They intrigued us with their simplicity. A series of 10’x10′ rooms put side by side to create a house-like structure that didn’t have to go through the rigorous scrutiny of inspectors and permits. I think we were still kind of dreaming in this phase. It was romantic to think of ourselves living in a tiny home with two young boys. Romantic, but not practical at all. Do you know how much little boys run and scream and spin in circles throwing toys in every direction JUST BECAUSE THEY CAN? A lot. We need a house that can accommodate all the craziness that comes with having two boys, and a tiny house just wasn’t going to cut it.
I remember drawing geodesic homes, houses in the shapes of octagons, hobbit holes, solar houses with huge windows facing south and indoor greenhouses, and I even looked into yurts and wall tents at one point. If there was a wacky way to build a house, you can be sure I drew up a few plans suited to that method of construction. It was all one big fantasy, and my imagination soared with the possibilities. We spent some time living with family members, and I even drew up little guest house plans to ensure that if people came to live with us in the future we’d be ready with cutesy tiny cabins lined up in a row. Then I learned about intentional communities and drew up entire community plans complete with communal buildings, cohousing units, shared workshops and barns, and several private housing options for each supposed member. I drew one so completely that it inspired a small series of stories that I posted on Frugal’s Forum. Those stories have since been lost, as the owner of the forum decided to eliminate the Fiction section.
Skip forward a couple more years, and here we are in the present. We bought some land. The house drawing bug bit us once again, and my husband and I flew into an architectural frenzy, kicking around several different ideas. The one we liked the most was a 600 sq ft home with two bed nooks, one bathroom, and a small living and kitchen area. After living in many small apartments and a few family basements, we knew we didn’t need a lot of space, though we needed more than the 100 sq ft a tiny home could provide. We drew up the plans and talked with the building inspector who handles the area our land is in.
That’s when he dropped that bombshell on us about the minimum square footage in the township codes. So we increased it. The house blossomed into the plans you see in my previous entries. It grew. Then it grew some more. Then before we knew it, it had doubled in size and the cost had skyrocketed clear out of any sane budget. The other night my husband and I were sitting here looking at the plan and we noticed the woodstove is so far opposite from the bedrooms that there’s no way it would efficiently heat all of our rooms. So we think, “Well, if we just bump the walls on this side of the house out a few more feet, we could put the woodstove right next to the stairs and bedrooms.” That thought brought us up short. Where was the money coming from to add on another 4 feet to one side of the house? How much would all these additions cost us? Where would it stop? The once quaint little cottage had taken steroids and was now mocking us with titty flexes through its brand name muscle shirt.
Back to the drawing board. That night I played around with a smaller footprint. My husband had drawn up a foundation plan for someone he met on the countryplans.com forum, so it was a perfect place to start. In no time at all I had a two bedroom, one bathroom structure. While not as small as the original plan we were intent on showing the building inspector, it is still simple in design and spacious enough to suit our current needs. It’s all on one floor, and there is nothing awkward about the roof line. The woodstove is centralized to heat the entire house efficiently, and there is plenty of closet and storage space to hold our stockpiles of food and supplies in check.
Yes, it’s small. 768 sq feet is much smaller than the 1000 sq ft minimum the township pushes for on new construction. But I’m fairly confident that we can make a solid case for hardship on the basis of our income and the fact that we cannot use a bank for financing. (Yes, we COULD use a bank, but who in their right mind would pay a bank for the privilege of hiring a crew of total strangers that will charge too much and most likely botch something very important? Who would willingly pay a bank 3-4 times as much as the house is worth only to have every little detail taken out of their own hands and put in the hands of “professionals” who know nothing about your goals and dreams for this piece of property?) Moving on… we don’t want to use a bank. We don’t want to use a contractor or even hire out a majority of the work. We want to pay as we go. We want to remain debt-free. So we’re sticking to our guns now. Small house or bust.
Our design will probably keep evolving, but I think we’re finally on the right path now. We’re putting our collective foot down on the big-house business. We’re thumbing our noses at the people and inspectors who think no one can be happy in a small house. We’re ready to show the world that 700 sq feet is more than enough room for a family of four living in the backwoods of Northern Wisconsin. May I introduce to you the newest member of our evolutionary branch of housing: The Raspberry Cabin, named after the thousands of small berry bushes scattered throughout our property that are home to probably more critters than we’d like to think about.