Whose house is it, anyway?



First things first.  I never ever ever ever ever ever ever wanted to build a house.  EVER.  EVER.  EVER. When I was a kid,  my parents built a house.  They sold this idea to my sister and me as an exciting opportunity to pick everything out ourselves, which initially sounded fun.  But little did I know that picking everything out meant PICKING EVERYTHING OUT.  I remember our weekends became mind-numbing marathons of frequenting lumber yards and lighting showrooms and bathroom fixture warehouses and carpet stores and kitchen cabinet suppliers.  And that was just to get IDEAS.  When it was time to make decisions, we would go back to the aforementioned places again.  And then we would go again.  And again.  And again. Bonus of this?  My sister and I knew the locations of all of the chairs, bathrooms, and candy vending machines in all of these exotic locales.  And at the end of the process, I had a sweet window seat in my bedroom.  But I also learned that building a house?   NOT FOR ME. Fast forward ten-ish years.   I marry a man with a gift for design whose lifelong dream is to build a house on a vast expanse of land.  Sorry, sucker.  Before we marry, I state unequivocally that I will not build a house with him. Building a house is a deal breaker.  That dream of his will have to DIE.  He smiled and married me anyway.

Fast forward yet again.  I am great with child.  The fourth child.  We are looking at houses to accommodate this passel of children and cannot find anything that works and does not break the bank.  My dear husband starts calculating and reveals to me, with what I imagine is fear and trembling, that for the cost of buying something that we don't want, we could actually build what we DO want.

Hmmm.  I shot him a lethal glance and said nothing.  But I started to think.

The baby came.  We went on vacation.  I discovered Houzz.com.  I played around with creating idea books.  I realized that a lot of the picking and choosing and deciding legwork could happen online.  No endless weekends at cabinet stores. Hmmm.

Shortly thereafter came a shocking change of heart.

I wanted to build a house.

I wanted to build a house for this crazy group of boys that live with me.  And frankly, no one was more amazed by this turn of events than me.  I think those postpartum hormones made me temporarily lose my mind.

And so, we are building a house on a beautiful farm.  Rather, I should say, we are ten months into the infuriating process of preparing and planning and sifting through bureaucratic minefields that are the prerequisite to building a house.  Despite these headaches, I am calm.  Mostly because I haven't had to pick anything out yet.



About a month into this process, I determined that I needed to learn a bit about architecture and design, so I read A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.  This is a fascinating book about the science and design surrounding spaces in which humans instinctively feel comfortable.  I shared this with my thoughtful, creative architect (who looks so much like the archetypal architect that we have dubbed him  Smooth Jazz).  He looked at me longand hard and said,

"No.  No Pattern Language.  House.  You need to read House."

So I did. Tracy Kidder's House is a fascinating work of literary non-fiction that chronicles the story of a finance-conscious couple building their first home, an architect driven to make his mark on the residential scene and determined that his creative vision will be realized, and a group of four carpenters who are more devoted to craftsmanship and structural integrity than the profitability of their company.  Interesting bedfellows, these three.

Kidder's detailed, nuanced description of the  tension between these  stakeholders in this most personal of projects was fascinating.  Each party had its own agenda, whether it be aesthetics, quality of materials, time, or the bottom line.   They all consistently asked themselves and each other what the house wanted in relationship to their often divergent agendas.  The house became The House, an entity unto itself, with an integrity that needed to be preserved.  It was almost as if it had an opinion that needed to be considered.  Kidder has a unique gift of transforming a topic that seems banal into a philosophical consideration of high art and psychological analyses, that are woven together like a gripping novel.  House reaffirms in me anew that people's stories, no matter how pedestrian they may seem at the outset, are powerful.  Their perspectives matter.

Kidder hangs the stories of the architect, the homeowner, and the carpenters on this essential question:  "Whose house is it?"  Who rightfully owns the House?  Does money trump all?  Or craftsmanship?  Or design? Is the true owner the architect, who carefully listened to the needs of the homebuyers, who designed a space in which to live which is in harmony with the surrounding land, and had carefully planned everything from rooflines to balustrades?  Or is it the carpenters, who made the roof joists "tight," irrespective of the fact that NO ONE will ever see them, and hid their initials in out of the way places?  Or is it the homebuyer, who shepherded the process, who put up the money, but had very little skin in the game of design and creation?  WHOSE HOUSE IS IT?

The answer, surely, is not any one of these folks.  It is all of them.  Together.   Collaborative creation of anything brings forth these types of questions, I suppose.  It brings out our most vulnerable selves and emphasizes who we are and what we value.  As the book concluded, I was left feeling wistful, since only one of these heavily invested parties actually gets to reside in their creation. So in our  case. . . who will own our house?  Smooth Jazz?  Our fabulous contractor?  Us?

The real answer is all of the above and none of the above.

Because the true owner of our house will be The Bank.  The bank will own our house for a long long long long long long time.