catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 3, Num 7 :: 2004.03.26 — 2004.04.08


On home-building

Early one July morning, at the beginning of the hottest week of the year in 1988, I loaded our decrepit VW van with four of our children, a brother, a nephew, and an array of primitive demolition tools, and set out from Three Rivers, Michigan, for northeastern Ohio to dismantle a large barn. The materials of that barn were to become the basic elements of our new home near the village of Jones, Michigan. It is an indication either of my naiveté or my enthusiasm about the endeavor that it did not even occur to me to take it as a bad omen when half an hour from our destination, the van developed what was to be a terminal illness, and we were ignominiously towed the rest of the way.

Of course, this was not really the beginning of my home-building venture. It was preceded by several years of dream-planning: reading books, sketching plans, making models, and gradually transforming myself psychologically from an administrator into a builder. However it started and evolved, today when I sit in our home and look at the space around me, noticing all the elements—material and otherwise—that define it, I know that I have had no more spiritual experience in my life than the three to five years I spent making this house happen.

I believe there are many ways to make a home. It must be possible to do so by hiring it done, by buying an existing structure, or even by setting a ready-made, modular, factory-built home down on a fresh, cement block foundation. Building a home, as opposed to building a house, involves investing meaning in a collection of elements?wood, metal, stone, cement, wire, insulation, and—yes—plastics of various kinds. Here are three suggestions from my experience of ways to bring meaning to the elements.

  1. Try to incorporate into the building at least some materials that already have meaning, that already have their own stories. This was a major focus in our home-building effort. The large beams that form the supporting structure of our home spent the better part of a century sheltering animals, hay, grain, and machinery on a northeastern Ohio farm. Before that they were painstakingly hand-hewn with an adze. And before that, already in the latter part of the 18th century, they grew as young trees in the forests of the Great Lakes region. As I spent time moving, cleaning, re-cutting and re-assembling these beams, I often imagined their stories, and the stories of those who worked them, touched them, and rubbed against them over the years. The intricacy and mystery of all those lost stories are very much a part of our home. Besides the beams and other wood from the barn there were many other items we used that already had stories attached to them: used windows and doors, salvaged brick, a sink from an uncle, a cabinet from a friend.
  2. Find ways to let the people you care about help you with different parts of the process. We had about 100 friends come for a house raising when we were ready to erect the frame, and have a wealth of good and lasting memories of that day. But beyond that there were many people who helped out individually with specific tasks, and we remember them as we move through the house and live in the midst of their work, their gifts: the complicated mortise and tenon joint made by a friend from Boston, a sill put in by a friend from New York, the flooring that my father helped me install, the drywall joints done by a couple from our church, the stair steps my son helped with, the cabinets and the last few feet of the chimney that were done by friends from Marcellus, and the list goes on. Walking through the house I feel connected and grateful to this cloud of witnesses.

  3. If you don’t naturally make mistakes, make a few (small ones) on purpose. Mistakes make a house a home. They give you reasons to keep dreaming after the building is done. And of course they are the way we learn. Mistakes mellow us, and it’s easier to live comfortably in a house with a few mistakes than in one with none. I have never understood those who say, “If I had it to do over again, I wouldn’t change a thing.” To the contrary, if I had it to do over again, I would make different mistakes.

Creating a space to shelter and welcome people one loves can be a profound and rich experience. I am continually grateful that it was an option available to me.


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