Rural Living December 01, 2023
A Home of Our Own
Building our own dreamhouse is a lot of work.
The porta-potty is gone, the container where we stored our belongings and building supplies is too. The plumber is testing the water system; each toilet has been flushed 25 times. Just a bit of brick work around the fireplace and our new home will be finished. Yes, the house and the location are beautiful; but more importantly, my wife Suzanne and I aren't getting divorced.
We've heard building a new house was simple for some. They chose a design, found a builder, wrote some checks, and moved in six months later. But what kind of boring story is that?
Fortunately (for you) our build had lots of drama, conflict, stress, and sleepless nights wondering OMG what have we done? Building our house, as my friend Nate warned, "will be the best and the worst experience of your life."
Plan A was to buy a waterfront place; Plan Z was to build. But listings disappeared overnight in the first days of the pandemic. We waited in vain hoping for a house to come on the market. Finally, we called the phone number on a hand-scrawled sign advertising waterfront land for sale and made a deal on a two-acre lot along the St Lawrence River.
The call launched our 30-month marathon. Building a house on an island, in a pandemic, what could possibly go wrong? As many friends who'd built their own place cautioned us, plenty.
We researched house plans with one key design principle in mind; we wanted it to be suitable for aging in place. In the end we chose a one-level, modern farmhouse design. We'll still be able to live there even if one of us one day requires a walker or wheelchair.
It includes a wrap-around covered deck suitable for three-season entertaining with easy access to the yard and waterfront. The interior features a vaulted Great Room highlighted with 150-year-old barn beams. I loved the look since I did a story on barn homes for Homestead, "Re-Barn," in 2017.
Keeping design-for-the-future in mind, it's highly energy efficient and capable of withstanding very severe weather. We reasoned energy costs aren't going down and we're definitely getting more wild storms.
We chose an ICF-walled (insulated concrete form) slab on grade structure with a metal roof. These buildings are so well insulated and sealed that special care and attention had to be taken to have positive airflow throughout the house to prevent mold. It has a cold weather heat pump coupled with an ERV for an HVAC system. The mechanical room's design was strengthened to double as a FEMA storm safe room to have a place to shelter in during the most severe storms.
Everything looked good on paper, then the pandemic delays kicked in. It took eleven months for our lot to be severed from the golf course, and even longer to complete the building plans.
Late 2021 and 2022 were wild times in Ontario's home construction industry. Contractors were going flat out; materials and labor were in short supply. Plus, we soon found that only a limited number were willing to take on an island project. After our initial contractor choice bowed out due to their workload and a preconstruction falling out with our second, we hired a project supervisor and acted as our own general contractors.
A young couple asked us what's the biggest challenge building your own home. Our answer: getting contractors to show up and do the work they agreed to in a timely fashion. We found at least 80 percent of our contractors to be super. Many went well above and beyond the call of duty, but it just takes one or two to cause a cascade of headaches.
Lessons learned. It's been a steep learning curve. First, we learned that it's much easier to correct problems in the design phase before construction starts. Second, expect problems and cost overruns. Be sure to include a 15% contingency in your budget. Third, solicit three bids for every phase. There can be over a 300% variance between the lowest and highest bids. Fourth, the lowest bid is not always the wisest choice, it's critical to check contractors' reputations before you sign with them. This is especially true if you are not building a standard home. Make sure you have your agreement on paper, or at least in a text, in case there's a dispute. Lastly, adopt a farmer's attitude—control what you can and let the rest go. Oh, and don't beat yourself or your spouse up! You will both make mistakes; accept they'll happen and move on.
Building a home of our own, especially acting as our own general contractor, was a tremendous amount of work. But we created a stunning home, in a gorgeous location, from a blank slate.
Would we build a second one? Not in a million years! ‡
Amanda Nigg parlays her passion for fitness into a thriving business.
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