Sunday, April 8, 2007


Yesterday I mentioned tearsheets, which are worth more discussion. Over the years, I've been tearing out pages of magazines with pictures of things that I like—houses, rooms, decorating details, architectural details, gardens, resources, you name it. If I liked it, I tore out the picture and tossed it in a box or one of several files I started.

Before I started the design process with Mark and Eric, I gathered the files and box to sort through what I had collected, and it was fascinating. It immediately became clear that there are certain things that I like. I found ideas and designs repeating. I've always thought that my tastes are wide ranging, but the tearsheets revealed that my tastes are very consistent.

I can't emphasis how important it is to collect tearsheets to help define and refine your design ideas. Pictures also make the design process with your architect, interior designer or builder 100% clear. Words can have many meanings and interpretations, but an image is what it is. With pictures there's very little room for variations and misunderstandings.

Farmhouses clearly hold a lot of appeal for me. I had pictures of them in ever form and fashion.


Tumbleweed Houses are pretty affordable, but their dimensions and amenities are pretty much like those of a trailer camper. Not what I want to be living in 10, much less 20, years from now.

My meetings with architects weren't a total waste of time, because the conversations did help me see more clearly and become more confident about what I wanted to build. And, I'll admit that I did pick up an idea or two that I'm incorporating into the design. I also stumbled across a book by A. J. Downing, an early American tastemaker. In the mid-1850's he published a book called, The Architecture of Country Houses. It's still available in paperback, and many of his ideas for how Americans should build country houses are still surprisingly relevant today.

One architect did have a glimpse of what I want to do. He's a classicist, and toward the end of our meeting he commented, "basically you want to build a folly." Ding! Ding! And his advice? "Make sure that the design of the house allows light to flood in from all four sides. You'll have the feeling of a wonderful pavilion in the field."

He nailed it on the head. I've always fantasized about garden follies. In my magazine tear sheets, I even have an example of an onion-domed folly in a field. I think it was something I had torn from The World of Interiors. When he made that comment, it suddenly became clear. I wanted to build an American farmhouse folly. A small house inspired by the rural, agrarian landscape. Small but big enough to call home.

My Tumbleweed Houses plans for a simple, small house evolved as I worked with Mark and Eric Misner, his architectural draftsman. Oak Tree Homes offers a design service. With my simple plans (and I mean simple) I needed something with more details specs for a builder to even start estimating costs. I paid an initial design fee, which would cover the costs of Eric developing new plans for a house. With the fee paid, I could have taken the plans and gone to another builder, but I chose to stay with Oak Tree. The design fee will be reimbursed when we sign a contract to build.

I started meeting with Mark and Eric back in January. It was quite a heady experience. Week after week, we'd meet late on Friday afternoons. As I explained, Eric started with the cross gable concept, and Mark walked me through lists of design features, building materials and utilities. I felt like a kid at Christmas. I want. I want. I want. And, a new house started taking shape on paper.

That was until bids started coming in and the estimate started escalating. I use the word escalating, because at one point a couple of months ago the costs for building the house were growing by $100,000 every week. When we pasted the half a million mark, I came to my senses and told Mark I didn't think I could build the house. In fact, I felt confident that I had to stop. To put this into some perspective, in the beginning I thought I was going to build a Tumbleweed House for about $80,000. Ha....

Fortunately, I was in good hands. Mark explained that there were aspects of the costs that we could revisit. So, we started looking at alternatives, and here we are today. The house plans are looking beautiful, and the price is coming down, and we're getting closer to a figure that I can manage to afford.

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Little Houses

A couple of years ago, I ran across the Tumbleweed Tiny House Company on the Internet. Jay Shafer is a young architect who is designing small (tiny) houses that are completely charming. A lot of their appeal comes from the proportions of his designs, which I think he nails. The houses caught my attention because they're like little follies. They also reminiscent of cottages on old Methodist summer campgrounds in the early 20th Century—little mini-me's of farmhouses and cottages.

At that point, a few years ago, I had just purchased my property in the Catskills and had become fascinated with the idea of a little house that wouldn't cost a lot to build. So, I purchased one of his plans for the largest house he had designed at the time—a 16'x16' cross gable design.

Jay has gotten a lot of attention since I first read about him. Last year I caught an episode of CBS Sunday Morning which had a segment on his ideas for living in small houses. His work has also gotten much more interesting and diverse. I think he's still living in his gypsy wagon-size house, but he's offering more variety and sizes in the architectural portfolios that he sells. Definitely worth checking out.

Renting a house in the Catskills for the past year, I've looked (and asked) around for builder recommendations. At a friend's dinner party last summer, I met a couple who had just built a house nearby. While it wasn't the same style of house I intend to build, I'd never heard anyone speak so highly of their builder. They put me in touch with Mark Barstow of Oak Tree Homes, and I couldn't be happier with how things are going. Granted, I had dreamed that I'd be building by now...but the inevitable wait (and planning time) over this past winter has been invaluable. I'm so ready to get this project going!

Sunday, April 1, 2007

Getting on the Site

Last spring, I hired a land excavator to open up an old road that crosses my property as a driveway. At a point about half way across the width of the property I had him make a turn and take the driveway up to the small field that straddles my property. In the aerial view at right, you can see the shape of the old field, because it is lined with stone walls that are visible in the photo. You can also see the old road, because it's also lined on both sides with stone walls. I have a lot of stone walls, but many of them have fallen apart over the years. Some day I'd like to have someone rebuild them.

The property is long and narrow, but the angle of the driveway and the way it turns to go up into the field makes the site feel much larger than it really is. My plan is to use these existing features to develop a master plan for the whole property. The lower triangle to the right of the driveway has a few old apple trees. I may just clean out the underbrush and the newer, smaller trees, but I could also clean out the whole area and start a new small apple orchard.....some day.

The triangle to the left of the driveway has a number of large maple trees and a few other interesting trees like a Rowan. The land there is very uneven and populated with a few really large boulders. My thought is that this could be developed into a more wooded area with a wandering path from the field down to the road at the foot of the driveway.

The field (Twilight Field) is where I'll build the house, which I think I'll orient to the old road, not perpendicular to the main road. Maybe this will help make the house feel like it's always been there?

And, at the top of the property behind the field is another triangle with more maple trees. This is the highest elevation on the site with great views to the south. I'm not sure what I'll do there, but the stone walls naturally organize the property into sections that I can develop over the years. I've got to get the house built first.