For many years (thirty-two, to be exact), we’ve lived in a 2,700-square-foot, three-bedroom house. At its most populous, it sheltered the five of us, an exchange student, a dog, two cats, and more pet reptiles than I wish to remember. For the past several years it’s just been Thomas and me and our good dog Charley. We’ve looked around at all this space, filled with all this accumulated stuff that I am determined to get rid of when we move, and have thought, surely the new house could be much, much smaller.
That was our intent, going into the design process. Thomas needs a big workshop, because he often does big work. But the house itself could be intimate and efficient. It could be one of those fine “not so big” houses we admire so much, maybe a thousand-square-foot jewel like our first house back in the sixties. As it turns out, the new house is just as big as the old one, and I’m still trying to figure out why.
I think at least part of it has to do with the land we’re building on. It’s a broad, flat, featureless three acres with big views in every direction. Imagining a small house there, with years and years to wait before new trees could grow up to it, has the oppressive feeling that you get from those old yellowed photos of tiny soddies on the Great Plains with seven grownups and hoards of children standing out in front with their farm implements and haunted eyes. My grandmother died young in such a place.
The other part has to do with personal space: We both seem to need a lot. I can’t really justify it; it’s simply part of how we live. Spinning, weaving, researching and writing, starting seedlings for the garden and nurturing other large plants, making wine—so much of what we do at home is solitary, large, and/or messy. Then, of course, we need the space to come together, to share meals and newspapers, music and small talk and adventures of the day. It all adds up.
But here’s the odd thing: This house we’re building, which as of this writing is a slab and some partial walls, keeps shifting on us. When it was only a foundation, it was tiny. Tiny! I felt a terrible mistake had been made. Then when the slabs were poured, it somehow grew more generous; it became more possible to imagine actually living in it without cabin fever. Now that some of the polystyrene/cement-block walls are in place, it has grown to look vast, at least parts of it. I worry that the living room will dwarf our little furniture. I worry about someday wandering around among the rooms aimlessly, lost in space. Our architect tells us this is normal, and that we won’t truly understand the size of the house until the interior walls are finished, at which point it will shrink back to what it really is—a just-above-average-size house. How odd that seems! Alice in Wonderland comes to Colorado!
Maybe it’s like the moon. Coming up full over the eastern horizon against the trees and rooflines, it’s an orange monstrosity, unbelievable. But as it rises to the zenith with empty sky all around, it becomes just a hard little white ball, trivial and a bit disappointing. Like our house, in reverse. Our walls, instead of confining the space, seem to make it larger. They give it shape and context. We go and look at it every day, wondering what next.
Linda Ligon is publisher of Natural Home. This is part six of the ongoing saga of her new natural home. In the photo above, polystyrene/cement block walls begin to shape the space.