Welcome to Curbed's original series Homeward Bound, in which long-affirmed city dweller and design journalist Karrie Jacobs documents her process as a first-time home builder. Jacobs, a professional observer of the man-made landscape, was the founding editor of Dwell magazine and the author of The Perfect $100,000 House: A Trip Across America and Back in Pursuit of a Place to Call Home (Viking, 2006). This eight-part series is a continuation of Jacobs's pursuit to solve the puzzle of modest, modern, and regional domestic architecture, using a recently-acquired parcel in upstate New York as a first-person case study.
Just when all is ready, another curve ball! The Andes building inspector is in Cooperstown hospital with a broken leg! As luck would have it I left him a phone message yesterday and he returned a call from the hospital bed. His wife will pick up the application from the office tomorrow and deliver it to him and he will issue the permit. Inspections have been coordinated with the inspector in Margaretville. Where else but here? So says the email I get from Stephen Walker, owner of Beaverdam Builders, our general contractor, as I'm sitting on the tarmac in Newark Liberty Airport in early August, about to depart for Oslo. The construction of our house in Andes has been in a holding pattern for months. We'd been hoping to get a building permit late spring or early summer 2015 so we could get the house framed and enclosed before winter. But before we could do that the engineer, a local guy named Paul Gossen, had to provide a design for the septic system and plans for the foundation and superstructure. He's been working on it at a snail's pace since April. By August, we're pretty sure that the plans are finally ready and that the foundation will be poured any minute. Except that now, the town official who issues building permits has been sidelined for the foreseeable future.
Still, Steve doesn't seem worried and so, during our Norway vacation, I don't worry about the house either. Normally, I stress about it all the time: There are endless details to fret about. For example, I recently spent a long afternoon with our architect, Mark Sofield, in the Davis and Warshow showroom in the A&D building on East 58th Street in Manhattan, picking out faucets, shower heads, diverters, and toilets. It's a painstaking, labor-intensive process involving conversations about the shape of sink corners and whether the nicely angled, built-in backrest on a Philippe Starck-designed bathtub will allow shower water to pool up behind it and flood. (Clearly, I'm still scarred by early encounters with Starck's Juicy Salif.)
While I have spent a ridiculous portion of my life thinking about design issues, I have a hard time focusing on the minutiae. Of course, to do this kind of thing right, you have to heed the small stuff, and I know that if I screw this up, I'll wind up with a sink and tub that drive me nuts. Criticizing other people's design decisions is my bread and butter. Making my own is torture.
The following day, Ed and I drive upstate and sit down with Steve the contractor in the dimly lit bar of the Andes Hotel. I tell Steve about my shopping trip with Mark and he asks: "How much water pressure is required?" My response: "Huh?" Steve explains that we'll be drilling a well to supply our house with water and the system, unless we turbo-charge it somehow, will not supply the water pressure to which we're accustomed in the city. If the fixtures I so laboriously selected require more that 50 pounds of pressure, we'll have to install supplemental pumps. [Per Mark, our architect: The fixtures are just fine.]
Steve also brought up Mark's design for the concrete deck that runs the length of the house, a "board formed" wall. What this means, in theory, is that the concrete wall you see as you approach the house from the front should have a woodgrain pattern picked up from the rough wooden forms into which the concrete is poured. Except, according to Steve, the wood used for concrete forms now consists of smooth sheets of plywood (or even smoother sheets of metal) so if you want the woodgrain effect, you have to fake it using latex (or maybe vinyl) to simulate the swirls. So much for the functionalist beauty of wood-patterned concrete.
Note that, despite all the fretting over details, the one thing I don't worry about is Stephen Walker himself. For one thing, he came highly recommended. He renovated a cabin for a friend of a friend, an architect named Mary Davis, and she refers to it as her "jewel box." When were looking for advice on whether we could turn our dilapidated barn into a house, his analysis of the barn's structure (or lack thereof) was so thorough—and so damning—that we decided to demolish the barn and hire him to build our house. Unlike the last contractor I dealt with—the slipshod low bidder on a bathroom renovation—Steve inspires confidence.
Steve, who's based in Roxbury, 25 miles from Andes, sounds like he's lived in the Catskills his whole life. Folksy. Salt of the earth. However, like me, he's actually from New Jersey. He fled the Garden State with his wife Bonnie in the 1970s, part of that era's back-to-the-land movement. Early on, he worked for a vegetable farmer, growing squash and hauling it to the wholesalers at the Hunts Point Market in the Bronx. Later he started truck farming on his own, and doing a little house painting on the side. "I ended up staining a house for a lawyer in Margaretville who would come home and talk to me at the end of the day," Steve recalls. "Turned out he had a property right across the road, an old center hall colonial, which I thought was a very interesting house. It was abandoned. I mentioned it to him and he said, 'You like that old house?'" The house belonged to the lawyer's wife, and Steve was hired to restore it. He's been a contractor ever since, taking on jobs that got bigger and more elaborate over time. "The market at that time up here was little hunting cottages for mostly retired policemen and firemen."
At this point, he's been building homes in the area for some 35 years and knows pretty much everybody and everything. Over the years he's developed a love-hate relationship with architects: Early on, Steve was hired to build a cottage in Roxbury designed by a Pratt professor named Constantine Karalis. "Constantine was patient with me. I learned a lot from him and it was great experience, so after that I designed a couple of things of my own." Steve went on to design, build, and sell a number of 1,200 square foot cottages on spec. Some were saltbox-style and others were more modern, with double-height main rooms and clerestory windows.
"After that I ran into a few design projects where I felt like the architects didn't understand structure very well. Six or eight years ago, I built a contemporary design by a Park Avenue architect for a friend of ours. I liked the look, but his plans were very skimpy. There were a number of things that should have been done differently and we painfully found out about them during construction."
Of course, when you look at the photos of the project, the Quail Ridge house, what you see is a nicely detailed modern house—a hybrid of a minimalist box and an angled Eichler—sandwiched between images of the more traditional cabins and farm houses that Beaverdam has built.
"It's a good house," Steve acknowledges, "but I did feel a little bit shy about architects for a while after that. I felt like I was left holding the bag too many times. Architects have a general feeling that contractors have no respect for them. But I've seen enough architectural mistakes to know that you don't just take everything for granted."
On our own porject, there have been some minor squabbles between architect and builder. Steve, for instance, is leery of the system Mark has sourced for pouring our concrete floor. In general, though, they seem to get along. "He's responsive," Steve says of Mark. "He gets back to me right away and answers most of my questions."
However, once Paul the engineer was thrown into the mix, things got more complicated. Steve puts it this way: "Architects think that engineers are stodgy and fussy and add a lot of overkill to the design." But that isn't quite the case. For weeks, Steve, Mark, and Paul slogged through an extended three-way debate over the issue of "thermal bridging." As it turns out, having a simple, minimalist poured-concrete floor in a house with a basement isn't so simple: The weight has to be supported somehow. In our case, everyone quickly agreed that pre-engineered wood trusses would do the job. The question was how to prevent the trusses from having any contact with the adjacent concrete deck, which could potentially expose the house's structure to the damaging effects of winter weather. After weeks of debate, the three finally signed off on hanging the trusses off the foundation, using a system designed to do just that. The trusses, therefore, are snugly within the foundation walls and insulated from icy conditions by a thick layer of concrete. Not a radical solution, by any means, but it took a lot of back-and-forth for all parties to come into alignment. Mark (the architect) insists that he was fine with any of the possible solutions, but Paul (the engineer) kept changing his mind.
The delays, in fact, were less a product of philosophical differences and more a result of the fact that Paul, now in his 70s and officially retired, still takes on an overwhelming workload. He's well known locally and very much in demand: "When the dome collapsed in Minnesota they sent Paul," says Steve, referring to the 2010 Metrodome collapse. "That's the quality of his work." And when the EPA contemplated putting a dome over a reservoir in Yonkers to keep geese out, Paul was called in to figure out whether it was feasible. (Apparently it wasn't.)
In any case, the engineering portion of our project is mostly done. And just before our meeting with Steve, we see workmen on our site building forms in which to pour footings. Construction!
Ed and I stay the night in an apartment in downtown Andes. After a long Friday morning run, we grab breakfast at Woody's, the diner where local farmers hold court at dawn and reconvene at lunchtime. There we run into Dick Liddle, the dairy farmer who pastures some of his cows on our land. He mentions that while our foundation was being dug, one of his heifers had died. Our excavator did him a favor and buried the animal. Later, Ed and I discuss where the cow might be interred. Not in our basement, I hope.
Then we return to the site take a closer look. We hike up the driveway, tossing a ball to the dog along the way, and are thrilled—thrilled!—to discover that the footings have been poured. We study the crisp lines of concrete spiked with rebar. Its shape is familiar. It's exactly the elongated, asymmetrical floorplan we've been staring at on paper for months although, at this point, it looks more something Donald Judd would have made than a house.
Then Ed and I have the same thought: The area within the footings looks awfully small. In particular, the long rectangle that demarcates the bedroom wing seems way too narrow to hold a master bedroom, a writing studio, a walk-in closet, a big bathroom, and a hallway. "Our Tom Thumb house," Ed remarks. I email Mark about it and he replies: "It's not a small house, but the site and views are so expansive I think it's looking small to you in comparison." Sounds plausible. It's just that after our 58 acres turned out to be only 48, I'm not taking anything for granted. Then Steve follows up: "I just returned from measuring the footings. All is well with the dimensions." Fine. Time to start worrying about the next thing.
Stay tuned for the next installment of Homeward Bound on Tuesday, September 22.
· All Homeward Bound entries [Curbed]