Particulars of a New Home are Never Simple

One homeowner begins to conceptualize her and her husband's new home—with a few criteria.

| March/April 2002

  • Illustration by David Barrett

I grew up in a bunch of rent houses. They came in all sizes and shapes, but were uniformly well-used. Sometimes we kids shared bedrooms, sometimes we each had our own. Sometimes space was so tight that the refrigerator would be relegated to the back porch, or the good china kept under a bed. It’s amazing to me, looking back, how my mother could pack up on a moment’s notice, move to a new house sight unseen, and make it feel like home. I’m not, as a result of these peregrinations, particularly house-proud.

This house that Thomas and I have lived in for most of our married life, have raised our kids and pets and random small livestock in and around, is pretty casual. There’s little logic to the storage (camera equipment in the same cupboard as mason jars, correspondence files in the coat closet). We’ve added rooms here and there as needs have arisen, and visitors sometimes mistake our living room for an enclosed porch or vice versa. Our efforts at making this old bungalow environmentally sound have been extensive but random. The palette is basically “earth,” designed to match what gets tracked in. But it works, and it’s been home for a lot of years.

The new house we hope to move into a year from now, that’s another story. We’re making conscious decisions! We’re planning down to the square foot, even the inch! A place for everything! If we had tried to undertake this massive project by ourselves, we feared we would kill each other, or at least yell a lot. So we’re working with an architect. And the process has been revealing and rewarding on many levels.

We were wary in the beginning. We’re both pretty opinionated and are die-hard do-it-yourselfers. We worried that a house designed by someone else would somehow be less than “ours.” (I secretly worried that we would drive an architect mad.) What we’ve found is a design team that’s the next best thing to couple counseling, and a house plan that’s different from and better than anything I would have imagined.

We had a few basic criteria: No air conditioning. Good use of the generous southern exposure. Separate personal spaces. Places for Thomas to watch the night sky and for me to watch the sunrise. No eating at the kitchen counter. But those needs turned out to be just the tip of the iceberg. With extensive gentle probing of our habits, values, dreams, and daily routines, our architect discovered truths about our personalities and how we live that are finding expression in the house—in how spaces balance and interconnect, in how the inside and outside flow together. At risk of sounding sappy, I think the process has actually made our relationship stronger and more tolerant.

It’s going to be a good house—warm, inviting, grounded, serene (at least until we start moving all our stuff into it and the kids come to visit). It will capture the sun, deflect the strong north and west winds, and be comfortable year-round in this climate of extreme temperatures. It’s been heartening to learn how broad and skilled—and adventurous—is the network of architects and builders committed to the same values we hold regarding life and earth and home. The one rude surprise was that we couldn’t figure out how to make the new house smaller than the old one. But that’s another story.

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