FROM CHAPTER 5: THE SECOND FLOOR PLAN
I planned my house, I kept in touch with Bill and
Athena Steen about a possible article in the Arizona
Daily Star, where I worked. I hadn't shared
my dilemma with them, but as they sent me an e-mail
about a series of workshops they were giving, they
also offered to assist with my house plans. I knew
what they'd tell me -- that my house was too big.
I replied," as long as you don't tell me I have to
live with two teenage boys in 800 square feet!"
front entrance.(photo: Rick Peterson)
have an architect, Wayne, living with us," Bill
told me in a return e-mail, "who has been looking
at ways we can live in less space, consume fewer
building materials, and be perfectly happy. Houses
have tripled in size since the 1950s and much of
the space in them doesn't get used."
had to agree with that. My boys' bedrooms had served
as receptacles for dirty clothes and beds. They
weren't used for much else. Our formal living room
housed the fancy furniture, while we all hung out
in the little den off the kitchen. And as for a
formal dining room-every time I had people over
to eat, we gathered outside around the barbecue.
The holidays seemed to be the only time I needed
a large dining table. I would be willing to rearrange
the house for that. But my pantry and my master
houses won't sell, if I have to move," I replied.
"I know that from being a real-estate agent."
need to be seen as more than investments," he replied.
"If you can build something for $30,000 then you
can sell it and move on easily. There is a growing
market for smaller, less expensive houses."
had a point. While a smaller house might not appeal
to everyone, I had seen plenty of clients who would
buy a smaller house if the mortgage payments fit into
their budget. "Okay," I agreed. I had no strength
left in me to object to anything. A have to relook
at this whole project, anyway. I'd like to come out
and see what Wayne is doing."
porch outside the bedroom
with clay sculptings.
recalled an article by David Eisenberg entitled "Sustainability
and the Building Codes," which stated that only one-third
of the world's population lives in modern buildings,
but these homes are so resource-intensive that they
consume one-fourth of the world's wood harvest, two-fifths
of its material and energy usage, and one-sixth of
all fresh water usage. In the past one hundred years
the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has
risen 27 percent, one-quarter of which has come from
burning fossil fuels just to provide energy for buildings.
During the same period, the world lost 20 percent
of its oxygen-creating forests.
a smaller house would not only ease my construction
workload and lighten my financial strain, but do minimal
damage to Earth's ecosystem. If I could find a way
to live in a smaller house and still meet the needs
of my family, I would consider it. So,
that Friday in late July, after work, I once again
found myself on the road to Canelo, hoping there would
be a miraculous solution to all my doubts. Clouds
rolled over the Santa Rita Mountains to my right,
while brilliant bolts of lightning pierced through
the blackness. I breathed deeply of the musty, damp
desert air. As I neared the foothills, thick drops
of rain spattered on my windshield and occasionally
in my open window. I left it open, enjoying the coolness
of the spray. Thunder exploded over the mountains
to the west, which were now engulfed in dark mists.
My breath slowed automatically as my little car and
I became engulfed by the awesome magnificence of the
thunderstorm on the empty, open highway.
porch was largely done by a carpenter.
the storm subsided, I maneuvered down the driveway
to Canelo, feeling energized and renewed. Wayne, Bill,
and Athena were very polite as they rolled out my
plans on their kitchen table. Knowing my stubbornness
against reducing its size, they searched for ways
to reduce the amounts of expensive lumber and concrete.
Even so, their estimate of construction costs was
between $50,000 and $1000,000. And they didn't figure
there was any way I could do the labor on weekends
within a year. We talked briefly about construction
loans, but they felt the same way I did. Without prior
building experience, there was no way to get around
the bank's requirements for a general contractor and
the subsequent limits of how much work I could do
myself. I wouldn't be able to afford a loan, anyway.
The evening grew late and the prospect of a mobile
home was calling me louder and louder. Athena
led me to their little straw bale guest house to sleep.
I woke at 3 A.M. with the realization that, like it
or not, I had to reduce the size of my house. Maybe
I could cut out the computer room, reduce the main
room and kitchen, shrink the bedrooms a little ...
I wandered back into the main house at 7 A.M., the
Steens were both at their computers and Wayne sat
at his drawing table with some plans unrolled before
him. He beckoned me toward him, showing me the drawings.
completed, fully plastered house
from the south.
Steens and I have been tossing around ideas for efficient
use of space in smaller houses," he said. "This is
a design we've been working on. It's for a guesthouse
in Utah -- an 8oo-square-foot rectangle, with a sleeping
loft and surrounding covered porch. The porch would
be far less expensive to build than the finished core
of the house and would serve as alternative living
space." He had drawn in an area of the porch that
was screened for summer sleeping, another portion
as a south-facing sunroom for winter passive solar
heating, then more room for outside dining and storage
of Hawaii's plantation homes with surrounding lanais
flashed through my mind. All my objections melted
away as I listened in fascination.
"My wife and I are looking at reducing our possessions
and building this house ourselves, doing all the
labor, for under $30,000."
was all I needed to hear. A solution!
chimed in, "You can have storage cupboards for kitchen
appliances out on the deck. All those things that
you use once or twice a year -- they don't need
to be in the kitchen. And then after you build this
and know what you are doing, you can build a little
guest house for your teenager while he goes through
college. I lived in a tiny house when I was first
married -- I even took care of a baby in there."
sunroom with earthen floor, gold clay
plasters and large south-facing windows.
mind was so overworked that it barely comprehended
what I was hearing, but I knew it all made sense.
The covered deck could be alternative dining, laundry
area, storage area, perhaps even a place to sleep.
I loved being outside and watching the sunsets or
thunderstorms and had often wondered why Arizona
homes didn't utilize porches more often to spare
the house walls from the intense summer heat and
pelting thunderstorms. The
porch wouldn't have to be much more than a surrounding
roof, really. I could probably just lay flagstone
or brick for flooring. As I drove away from Canelo
that morning, I had a small sketch of the new house
plan on my passenger seat -- a gift from the Steens
and Wayne. The Steens had even offered to help Dan
redraw my plans. I
had a few ideas for small changes I would make on
the house, but all in all, it felt like it was made
for my family. I wasn't sure how my boys would react
to this, since it meant they had one sleeping loft
instead of separate bedrooms. But then, I could
give Zej hope for building his own guesthouse where
he could blast rock music late at night, after we
built the main house. I'd let him quit work and
offer to pay his car insurance so he could learn
how to build with straw. Then he could largely build
his own cottage. What a great experience! Hope for
my straw bale house flickered anew. The former alleged
mansion that threatened to topple over and crush
me had become a friendly cabin that I could imagine
building. The knot in my stomach was gone.