Monday, March 8, 2010

Getting Started, for 4 years

I am a dis-ordered soul, which may explain why the things I make are highly ordered in their making and aspect. So it is with some discomfort that I start this blog on the building of our house 3 months into it, which means I have some back-tracking to do to fill in the blanks. You see, the house is there, in place, but the fun stuff is yet to come.
Pilar Proffitt is my wife, the mother of my three children, my business partner, my co-designer, my editor, my wiser soul, and a great pair of eyes. We have spent the four years since we first saw our place designing numerous houses that we could build on the property, and finally, we picked one. I find I can design a million things, all of some degree of merit, but nothing really happens till you pick one. Then you make it good.
So, of all the ones we drew, and re-drew, we settle on the one we thought would meet our needs, give us something interesting to think about, and that we possibly might be able to afford. This last point had more sway than we would have preferred: if you have 3 small people you have produced, and you need some privacy, you need a bit of square footage. We didn't want huge, but children and all the plastic they come with need space. We didn't want to exceed 3,000 square feet, because, at the local rate of $250-$350 per square foot, we couldn't afford it, and something about going bigger seemed dirty. We looked into renovating our barn into a house, and adding on to the end of it, but Pilar didn't want to live right next to the workshop (OK by me) and there was something about the flies that still think the cows are coming back for a good milking.

At the end of the barn there is a glorious open and relatively flat piece of land. The view to the northeast is of a meandering country road that vanishes into the hills in the distance. Farther on, there are a sprinkling of Massachusetts mountains. There is a McMansion or two in the foreground: one looks a bit like Churchill Downs; the other, a wedding cake. But we look over and beyond them with our rose colored glasses, and breathe in what we signed up and paid for.
After talking to at least a dozen of the local builders, from real firms, to guys with magnet signs on their pick-up trucks, we decided we really couldn't afford anything. At all. So we had a crazy idea. Why don't we build a modular home? I'll be frank: I have never, ever, in my life, seen a modular home that I admired. There always seems to be something not quite right. Even the new modern ones I see published in the glossy's seem to be either too small, too expensive, or too aspirational: I know of a local couple who went with one, and while very cool, it ended up at over $400 per square foot, according to the builder. But how about this: what if we went to a local modular company, worked with what they can do in their typical set-ups, tweek it to fit our needs, and spend the savings on eradicating everything about its appearance that speaks of modular. We did a drive-by design, and got it priced: holy cow it came in at $117 per square foot and off to the races went we.
We only looked at one modular builder: the guy we kept hearing about, met, and grew quickly to respect was Bob Segalla of Segalla Homes. He is the local builder that works with Westchester Modular, a house factory that serves a fairly large portion of the Northeast region. As best as we could determine, not only was Westchester's construction of the best quality around, the Segalla's have a reputation of being straight-up honest and direct. As we got into it with Bob, we found things were remarkably simple: if you wanted the cedar siding option, it cost X. If you didn't, the deduction was the SAME X! No yanking around. So at the bottom of the list of all the things we wanted, and all the things we didn't, was a total, and that, quite literally, was the number we took to the bank. It took a large portion of the risk, the discomfort, the uncertainty right out of the building equation. (I say large portion, not all, because of the things I pulled out of his contract, such as the earth-moving, which is the most fraught with uncertainty and risk of all. - more on this later.)
Now the work really started: we learned to work within the limitations of the system Westchester offered, then we drew, and tweeked, and drew some more till we had a plan that worked for us. We wanted 4 bedrooms so Sammy could move out of our closet, a TV area separate from the living area, a basement for the kids and all their stuff, a workable mudroom for mud mud mud and gear, a drive-in garage to limit that mud mud mud, a bedroom and bath that gave a sense of escape, if not an actual escape, and downstairs, we just wanted a big open loft space, with a big damn fireplace. We designed a masonry bookend for the house to turn our back to the road, and glassed the opposite end which aimed toward the mountains. We drew a covered connection to the existing barn, so I can make a clean escape to and return from the workshop when something needs to happen.
The next job was to address the finishes, those things you see and touch that tell you the house is modular. This is for the next entry.


  1. very exciting to follow this project of my favorite architects/designers/people. I would love to see the small image of the shell in the distance larger. More photos please for use city folks that haven't made it up recently :)

  2. Thanks. As you know, I find it difficult to limit my words but I am committed to making this primarily a visual diary, so stay tuned for more pictures as I get caught up with the house progress.