Designing a Dream

So what's the plan?

Despite the drastic change in the original plan of the off-grid cabin, the basic idea for our home remained the same. Simple, open, functional and filled with natural light. We wanted a real openness to the outside. We also knew we wanted a sleeping loft, farmer's porch and large windows. Beyond that, we didn't really have an actual plan, and in a way the overall design unraveled as we discovered windows and other materials we thought "might work". I think we both had a rough idea of what we wanted our future living space to be (and I had made that rough pencil drawing of what I was picturing), but the details were fuzzy. The design continued to develop from there very organically through sharing ideas that often seemed to complement each other nicely. We really started to see our dream taking shape.

Along the way, though, there are the many anticipated obstacles, and those unforeseen.  It is important to keep in mind that you should expect to experience both, and be ready to navigate through them all. Perhaps one of the scariest steps in the whole design/build process is the big shift from dreaming and designing into actual reality. For me, having imagined the place for many years, this was a monumental step. I imagine it would be for most, especially for those who are building themselves.

We broke ground on our build this past spring, after an unusually mild (if not almost nonexistent) winter. Temperatures in March in northern New England usually remain chilly and weather can range from drizzly, icy and cold and below freezing to mild into the 60's. This one obvious obstacle became tricky to navigate through, especially in terms of planning. Now when I use the term planning, I use it very loosely. To call planning around springtime mountain weather a challenge would be too kind. In our efforts to plan parts of the project particularly susceptible to extreme weather conditions, I have noted some hopefully helpful things to keep in mind, some I'm sure you've thought of, but others you maybe haven't. Some may seem incredibly obvious, but you'd be surprised what we overlook.

1) Weather.  We all know to expect it, but maybe don't fully grasp the many effects it will have on your building plans. Remember you are building a house outside, which means you will be enjoying a vast variety of weather, including, but not limited to: Rain. Rain showers, freezing rain, more rain, torrential downpours, intermittent showers, and sometimes sideways rain, followed by, or preceded by: Wind. The pleasant breeze you observe on a pleasant day can often turn suddenly strong and sustained, especially in the mountains and higher elevations. Be prepared to encounter wind and rain together for a winning combination of damp, cold and unpleasant throughout most of early spring. Invest in a good rain jacket, fleece and synthetic or wool base layers. And, of course, don't forget your hat. Sun. You may be in the middle of the woods, but that beautiful clearing you carved out for maximum solar gains also means very little shade. Try to plan your projects around the movement of the sun. Always remember your sunscreen and hat, visit the shade frequently during the hotter parts of the day, and drink oodles of water. Cold. Working in the late winter/early spring or late fall/early winter requires obvious extra layers. Find the right boots and amount of layers for your body, and don't bulk up too much so you don't sweat when you're hauling or hoisting boards or whatever.

2) Money and Financing.  Another huge facet of planning steering our project, other than time, is money. For many of us, this is the biggest obstacle. For us, financial planning is especially difficult due to fluctuating income and our home business. We had a rough idea in our heads of what we would target as a budget, but knew that we would have to do most pieces of the project as money allowed, a little at a time. We also knew it would be difficult to accurately estimate costs because we were figuring things out one step at a time, and that there would be many unintended purchases. It's incredible the amount of items you forget to include in your materials lists when estimating costs. Screws, caulking, spray foam and tool organizers to name a few. Be sure to hang onto all of your receipts and organize them in some way that makes sense to you.

One thing we really hoped to avoid like the plague, was ringing up huge credit card debt financing large items (or small items!). Unfortunately our situation required us to do so, at least somewhat, but we anticipated being able to pay off most of it quickly.

3) Tools and Equipment.  When's the last time you inventoried your tools? Do you know exactly what you already have, and a pretty good idea of what else you may need? Gather your tools from around your garage and basement and see what you have for the basics. That's a good place to start. Then, walk through the major steps of the project and determine which tools you plan on purchasing and which you prefer to rent or borrow. For us, after a year and a half of clearing and building, it became apparent that one giant help would be a tractor. This was an anticipated expense in the future, but we recognized its immense usefulness at one point in the project and were forced to finance one...and so far we do not regret it! Justification for this expense is in the longevity of use and versatility of the machine. In the short time we have had it, we have no regrets about that decision. One digging project that would have taken us an entire day took about 20 minutes. The amount of projects it will simplify and speed up moving forward are countless. Hopefully we can avoid any additional large credit purchases, but there is still so much more to buy.

4) Site selection and Positioning. In over a year's time, we were able to observe weather patterns and wind directions, seasonal changes of all kinds, movement of sun position, watch trees drop and re-grow leaves, experience wildlife passing through, notice rainfall drainage routes and where the moon rises, identify native plants and trees, etc, etc... The insights gained from observations are endless. Keep in mind, too, what you will be seeing from inside spaces, as well as the location of outbuildings, gardens, greenhouses, outdoor living spaces, animal paddocks and other landscape attributes you would like your slice of paradise to have. Terraced gardens with natural irrigation, maybe? Views of gardens from the kitchen to help inspire your cooking? Pathways meandering through the yard from place to place, leading you to the woodshed or favorite sitting spot on a rock. On our property in late fall and winter, we noticed the slight ridgeline views through the woods to the east which became the backdrop for our home, nestled in the evergreens.

5) Access. What is the road like in mud season? During and after a very snowy winter? Is anyone else going to help take care of the road?  In our situation, the answer to the last question, at least for now, is no. There are no other houses on our private road, so we are responsible for the upkeep, maintenance and plowing. The tractor is essential for such projects which will occur seasonally each year without fail.

6) Water Source. Is there any water on site? Should you dig a well? If not, where is your closest natural source?  Is there a stream or natural spring nearby? Is it legal to pump water from the river down the road? If you are planning on digging a well, keep in mind this can be very costly. It is a good idea to research your area a little on various websites such as the town's website, or USGS, where you can get an idea of groundwater levels in your area to assist with locating water. Another water-gathering method which has been gaining much popularity is rainwater collection. It's simple and inexpensive, and super-practical for so many reasons. The only real downside could be the recent droughts we've experienced that have drastically limited our public water supplies. I imagine eventually wells could even dry up. Maybe they already are, I don't know. Regardless, it seems obvious to try to make use of a resource that literally falls from the sky, and requires no burning of fossil fuels, creates no pollution, costs little and exerts minimal effort. Go on, get a few barrels and give it a try!

7) Power Source. How do you decide which power system or systems to use? Solar, wind, small-scale hydropower? There are entire books about each and every option, and there is new technology developing and spreading out into the mainstream all the time. Amazon is a great place to check out a wide variety of resources and read reviews. I am the farthest thing from an expert in any of these systems, but have dug into some permaculture literature which has largely empowered me to take this journey. A few resources I found tremendously helpful were The Permaculture Handbook by Peter Bane and Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway. You will definitely want to do some serious research on each system so you have a broad understanding of what's involved in cost, purchasing materials, installation, safety considerations, and any possible restrictions in your town. These things are all very time-consuming and findings are not always clear. What works for an off-grid plumbing system in the Arizona desert does not work in areas where temperatures frequently plummet below zero. It seems sometimes small towns can sometimes be more lenient or flexible on certain things, but obviously the codes and restrictions vary significantly from state to state, and town to town. As Jamie has learned, it's not a bad idea to become friends with the building inspector.

As we both continue to learn, there are endless things to consider in designing your dream, no matter what its shape, size or design. The lessons learned are so frequent and challenges so immensely overwhelming at times it may seem impossible. But, it's not. You can design your dream. We are!

So, sharpen up your problem solving skills, take a deep breath, sharpen your carpenter's pencils and dive in! What's the worst that can happen?