That One Time We Built a House: A tale of the extraordinary ordinary

Do you ever get wrapped up in the idea that you’re simply not interesting enough? Perhaps it’s my generation (I’m a Millexial; slightly too old to be Millennial, and slightly too young to be Gen X.), but I often find myself torn between the idea that I should at least TRY to be slightly more out of the ordinary (ahem Millenial), and a general disdain for the opinions of others in face of my much more important real life obligations (Ahem GenX/parenting.). A co-worker might regale me with stories of her horrendously busy weekend, and all I can say to her in response is: I don’t actually remember what we did.

This is truth: I can guarantee that our weekend included both laundry and Kraft Cheese and Macaroni.

Otherwise, I’ve got nothing. Typically, I’m good with that, but just occasionally I’ll start worrying about whether I have taken enough trips, had enough date nights, been active enough on my LinkedIn page, or whether I remembered to share that photo of a princess water bottle tucked into husband’s camouflaged hunting backpack. (Seriously, so cute.) Then I feel guilty because I *shouldn’t* care if other people find my life to be boring. I certainly don’t. Then again, I’m a DIY home-builder and we are a pretty cool crowd.

Social media is rife with people who are weekend DIY-er’s. In case you missed the above paragraph describing my fascinating weekends, I’m not one of those. No, I’m an honest to goodness legit home builder. Being a home-builder is a pretty heady thing. It absolutely shouldn’t be confused for someone who builds homes for a living. General contractors, carpenters, roofers and their ilk- they get paid for that insanity. Not only do they get paid – they KNOW things. Like how important a limitless supply of pencils is, and what to do when you accidentally wall off a live lightbulb*. Nor should it be confused for someone who hires another person to build their home for them. They might be footing the bill – and deciding whether they should go with the Corian or the concrete, but they’re not physically building their home. They don’t even know where their pencils are. A DIY home-builder knows just enough to be dangerous; we have pencils, but we never have enough. We are Jacks of All Trades – and masters of none.

It wasn’t always this way. My husband and I lived in a geodesic dome house when we were newly married. My parents owned the property (adjacent to their own homestead, where I was literally born and raised) – and they said, “Come live in the dome and pay us rent.”** We lived there for about a month before we decided to buy the home for ourselves. We were going to be cool cheese-making hippies – just with better clothes. We lived there for another year before it became clear that the dome was…not in good shape. Some of the structural beams were rotting, and we were forever finding woodland creatures in our home that wanted to commune with us a little too often. There were bats.(Plural.) Snakes (also plural). A single tail-less (I did that) ground squirrel that snuck up on me while I was contemplating life in the water closet and a whole host of mice that were at least reassuring with their constant presence. I certainly never felt alone. Or unwatched. Eventually we decided that the structural damage was too much and the woodland creatures too plentiful. We were faced with the choice to either move somewhere else or build on the property.

We were young – and stupid, and in love with our little chunk of property almost as much as we were in love with each other, so we built. Not having anticipated the expense of a new construction project (it can’t cost THAT much, can it?!) we built entirely out of pocket – and with agonizing slowness. Our first expense, the concrete for footings, was not enough to bankrupt us, but enough to preclude niceties like good beer and 2 ply paper towel. We grew adept at wielding hammers (or at least I did, my husband was already adept at these things) and the appropriate mixture of sand to concrete to water ratio for laying blocks. My husband bought me a special tape measure for idiots that had every 16th mark and possible fraction labeled. It wasn’t an insult – it was a genuinely necessary item for me and our marriage in general. I discovered that I’m a semi-decent outlet wirer, and that drywall is our personal version of marital hell. We coined the phrase, “measure twice, cut thrice”. We gifted ourselves new power tools for Christmas and birthdays. (We still do this. Old habits die hard, but so do power tools.)

After a while, the shine had worn off. We no longer had hands; we had feet-hands***. We stopped giving tours to friends and family members; they lacked the vision to see what it would become and we didn’t have an answer for the inevitable question: “So…when are you going to finish?”. It took us 5 years to build our home to the point where it was move-in-available. It was still a far-cry from move in-ready. My kitchen consisted of a laundry sink, a $20 plastic shelf, a card table that served triple duty as countertop, dining table and dish drying rack, and a very out-of-place stainless steel fridge and stove. For 3 months. But I was fat with our first child – and we needed a place to live where I wasn’t in fear of my baby being taken by the rogue band of squirrels living in the walls of the dome. We laid flooring when I was 7 months pregnant, which was such a miserable experience that I still cringe thinking of that. Eventually and bit by bit, our house became a home.

We have now been in our home for 7 years, and it’s still a work in progress. The basement is unfinished and there are pieces of trim occasionally left undone. Landscaping, as it scares the crap out of me, is still hanging out in the ether world of “we’ll tackle that some day”. But it is ours – literally built with our own hands, and it is paid for – something very few 30 somethings can say.

I cannot imagine ever moving away from this home; my children will someday have to pry my claw-like hands from the front stoop in order to drive me to the nursing home, all while I am explaining to them how we once didn’t even have a front stoop, but rather a few concrete blocks haphazardly strewn about.

This story brings up a lot of feels for me. We were so young when we started this process, so stupidly young. As it turns out, that was a huge benefit to us. Optimism? Check. Energy? Check. Time? Check. Adding children into the mix makes housebuilding virtually impossible. It took us 3 months to lay a paved path this summer. It was 21 feet long and 8 feet wide, but it felt like 3 football fields laid end to end. Summer schedules being what they are, we were lucky if we could devote one Sunday every 3 weeks to the project– and then we had the inevitable child-related stoppages of lunch negotiations, snackus interruptus and general sandbox mediation. When we were young and sans children, building our home was not only something we did – it was our life. We would work our full-time jobs, rush home, and work another 3-4 hours per night building the house. We didn’t have cable TV or internet and we were boring as hell. And that was fine. Social media was nowhere on our radar in 2004. We had no one to impress and a whole host of things that were more important to consider. Things like making sure we had support walls in all the right places, and enough electrical staples; the blue kind, not the yellow. We were building a home – and that was everything.

Now, I’m not saying that everyone should run right out and build their own home. I mean, that would be cool – we could start a little online club (Housebuilders-R-Us) and share tips on how to cut plastic soffeting, but it’s not realistic. What I AM saying is that you should find your own version of housebuilding. Most people don’t look at me and think to themselves: Now there – THERE is a woman who has built her own house! It’s a unique and remarkable skill to have achieved while also being incredibly fulfilling. So whenever I am feeling as though what I am or what I’m doing is not enough (and this happens to even the most overachieving of us) I remind myself of what I have done, what I’m capable of doing and I suddenly feel much, much better. Find your proverbial inner house-builder. Buy her a tape-measure for idiots, 5 boxes of carpenter’s pencils and set her free.

_________________________________________________________________Footnotes for fun:

*(You let it burn out. It takes 6 weeks.)

** Those Christopher Marlowe fans among you can take heart in knowing that I am now humming, “Come live in my dome, and pay me rent” to the Passionate Shepherd’s tune. This is great.

*** FEET-HAND FEET HANDS: No matter which part of housebuilding you are engaged in, it will always, without fail, hurt your hands in some way, shape or form. When we were digging the footings for our house, my hands developed spectacularly man-like shovel calluses. When we blocked up the basement, I alternated between cement block hauling abrasions and disgustingly dry skin on my hands from mixing up batches of mortar. As the house took form, we then put our hands through a multitude of torturous activities, included but not limited to: hammer swinging calluses, sudden and abrupt encounters with a hammer head and non-hardened finger appendages, not so abrupt encounters with a hand saw, countless exposures to (possibly carcinogenic) house sealant resulting in excessive skin dryness, lethal punctures from an electrician’s screwdriver, constant purple staining from primer (admittedly not painful, but not pretty to look at), an unbearable itchiness from overexposure to insulation materials and an unbearable itchiness and disproportionate dryness of hand skin from drywall handling. For the sake of the reader, who by now is undoubtedly quite tired of my whining, I have left out all mention of the miscellaneous hand scrapes, bruises, cuts and pinches that are intrinsic to all aspects of house building.


One thought on “That One Time We Built a House: A tale of the extraordinary ordinary

  1. I could not stop laughing and saying “oh, I remember that”. Now you have an unbelievably beautiful home and you learned from our “self built” home what NOT to do. You rock sweetness!


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