Sunday, May 22, 2011

Jen's Side of the Story

Niels did a good job of starting this blog. I thought I’d add a post about how we came to decide to build in the first place.

One of Niels’ criterion for our current house was that it was on a big lot. Land is hard to come by in the Netherlands--where he's from--so he was quite keen to have some of his own. (Our house is on 1.36 acres). Of course, all that land is less appealing now that he understands how much time a 37-mile commute, a brain-injured wife and an active toddler takes!

The other thing Niels (and the rest of the world) really wanted was hardwood floors. What I didn’t realize before I moved in was how LOUD hardwood is on a daily basis. As someone who lives with a nearly-constant headache, it didn’t take long to realize that hardwoods are not brain-injury friendly.

These two realizations started us thinking about building a dream house…someday. It was a little something we’d talk about as we noticed things in other houses we liked. “That would be great in our dream house…”

Many of our friends and all of our family live hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from us. If they visit, it’s not a quick stop for dinner. They stay for up to a month at a time. Our house accommodates guests quite well, although the layout is not ideal.

Shortly after their first visit to see us, Niels’ dad called to say that he found (online, of course) a lot of land near us that was for sale. He thought maybe it would be a nice place to build a guest house for them. Niels checked out the lot in person, and quickly decided that it would NOT be a good place to build (plus we really didn’t want two properties to care for six months a year). That led to a discussion of building a guest house on our land. We quickly ruled that out due to the lay of our land. Another conversation involved adding on to our current house. Again, the nature of our lot ruled out that idea. We started to think maybe building our dream house would happen sooner rather than before my in-laws retired in three years.

During their next visit to Ohio, we visited several models. One of them belonged to Charis Homes. We also visited models by all the other major builders in the area, including one three-month old model that already had a large crack across the ceiling. YIKES! We saw some beautiful homes, and had great discussions about what would work for us, and what would work for them. They realized it was our house, ultimately, but we wanted it to be a place that they would feel comfortable and welcome, too. Plus, we (I!) had a lot to learn about international ideas of housing.

American and Dutch housing trends are very different. In general, because land is at such a premium, houses have a smaller footprint, and are built up, not out. Three stories is quite common. Trends tend to be more practical and less fickle than here in the States. In fact, Niels’ parents renovated their kitchen 15 years ago…with a style that is just now showing up in the States!

But the most important difference between building in America and building in Holland is the type of construction used. Here in the US, most houses are wood framed. In Holland, you will see a lot of concrete and brick frame. The latter makes for more study houses, as well as greater energy efficiency.

When we walked into that Charis Home, Niels and his dad got all excited about the insulated concrete form (ICF) construction. To be honest, I wasn’t overly impressed with the house because I didn't understand why that was important. I have a hard time visualizing things, and this house was a ranch. I definitely wanted a two story. (I have gotten much better at looking at all kinds of houses for ideas).

It didn’t take long for me to embrace ICF. In addition to reducing energy bills (the house conserves energy much better than wood framed houses), ICF homes block most allergens from seeping into the house, and are mold and termite resistant. SOLD!

Being married to a non-American can open your eyes to things you wouldn’t otherwise see. In particular, our family has a more global approach to our everyday life. It is sobering to think how wasteful Americans can be. Granted, building a new home doesn’t really help against that statement, but we do hope that our home will be the kind of more energy-efficient, environmentally-friendly house the future needs.

Over the last four years, we have spent many hours touring models and talking to builders. Once we settled on a neighborhood (with sidewalks!), we started taking walks there and meeting the neighbors. We asked them about their houses: who built them, what they loved, what they would do differently. In those three years, we never once heard a single bad word about Charis Homes. When we saw how excited they are about green building, and energy-efficiency, and universal design, and building right, not just trendy, we knew we had found our builder.

My sister and brother-in-law own a company in Minnesota called Accessible Homes. We talked to them quite a bit about building a house that makes my life easier as a (high functioning) brain-injury survivor now, but can also accommodate my needs as I get older, and as friends and family of all abilities visit us. We made a goal to use as much universal design principles as possible on the first floor. We’re using levers on our doors instead of knobs, a touch sink in our kitchen, drawers instead of lower cabinets, dimmers instead of switches, wider doors and entries to accommodate a wheelchair, etc.

For me, a brain-injury friendly house includes attention to sound-proofing and décor. Cork floors are quiet AND green. In the kitchen, which is MY room, we’ll use more solid colors for the counters and backsplash and away from patterns tend to exasperate my headaches and vertigo.

I love to cook. Planning and making healthy meals makes me feel like I am contributing to my family. My brain injury prevents me from working, but cooking gives me a sense of accomplishment each day. My big splurge is a walk-in pantry to house all my bulk goods, upright freezer and smaller appliances. We have a lowered counter for my baking center so I will no longer have to stand on my tippy toes to knead dough! I am SO excited for my new kitchen.

As much as possible, as we make choices for our new home, we want to consider the most energy-efficient and environmentally-friendly choice. It won’t happen for everything—we do have a budget!—but where we can, we will.

Niels will make most of the posts on this blog. He understands the process much better than I do, and can better explain the important choices that often go unnoticed. I’ll chime in on the things that are important to me, and help with the basic design of the site.

While we started this blog really just for my own memory of the process (so ten years from now when I saw, “Why did we pick this ______?!,” I’ll know. But since I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading through blogs showing the progress of other dream homes, I hope our decisions help others considering their own home building project. Print this post

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