“In a home, it’s the site that matters.”
How we built a ten bedroom, two story house on Saturdays, with a little help from our friends.
It was getting on late summer of 1977 when it began to collectively dawn on us, the residents of Catfish Pond, that winter was going to come again. We were living in the oldest surviving army tent on the Farm. Between it and the two shacks next to it we needed 4 wood stoves. We had no money, of course, no carpenters, and about a dozen little kids among us. It was clear we should build a house.
The crew consisted of two farmers, a printer, a truck driver, and a couple of poets. Michael, one of the farmers, had hung sheet rock in Colorado once, so he was put in charge. The plan was to move in by Thanksgiving. Not knowing what we were doing made it easy to be optimistic. We actually moved in a few weeks before Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving of 1978. It took a little over a year of Saturdays, during which time we earned the money, wrecked the materials, learned the skills, and built the house.
In accordance with the teaching of Lao Tzu, we began by picking the site. That was easy, and fun, walking around in the woods, arguing with your friends. The important thing about the site is to remember where the sun is. Our house is 62 feet long, built lengthwise on an exact east-west axis. Our long south wall, filled with windows, fills the house with sunlight all day in the winter. On a sunny day, with the temperature below freezing, we can heat the whole house just by opening the curtains. No need to build a fire until evening.
The next step was to dig the footer. It was all pick and shovel work in a mixture of rocks, clay, and tree roots, but it was something we knew we could do. So we measured and strung a few strings, and dug the ditches.
Pouring the footer was likewise well within our ken. The hardest part was helping the driver get the cement mixer unstuck from the mud. Once the footer was poured, the house began to feel more real. It gave us the impetus to get some jobs wrecking cinder block. People were glad to let us haul it away. All we had to do was knock it loose, load it in a truck, bring it home, and chip the mortar off of it. Lucky for us, Rodney, the mason, lived across the street. He showed us how to set it up, and taught us how to lay block. A bunch of the block had come from a pool hall, and was painted on one side, some pink, some blue, as I recall. So when we laid the block, we made a geometric pattern out of the different colored blocks.
One of the many Saturday jobs we got, to earn money and wreck materials, was rebuilding part of a stone wall foundation for a huge barn on this old woman’s Tennessee farm. Ruby was in her 70′s, as thin and mean as a snake. We jacked up the barn, hauled boulders and mortared them into place. It was quite beautiful when it was done. Then she cheated us out of some of our money. But, with what we had learned, we got a couple more stone wall building jobs.
Once the foundation was up, all we had to do was deck it and frame it. We already had a lot of the lumber from a house we had wrecked. By the time Thanksgiving came, the foundation was built, the first floor was decked and framed, and we were broke again.
During the winter all work on the house came to a stop. Caught up in the exigencies of our last winter in the tent, we almost forgot the house was there.
When spring came, we remembered. By now we had learned enough building the house and working off the Farm on Saturdays, that Michael figured we could take on something more challenging, so he got us a job building a one room addition on a house in Columbia. We contracted to do the whole thing, foundation, framing, roofing, siding, insulation, dry wall, wiring, painting, all for $5,000. Since we could only work on it on Saturdays, we split the job with the farming crew, who did some work during the week. We all learned a lot of stuff, made a little money, and built a nice addition.
Now we were in a position to do something. We collected all our lumber and roof tin, bought some more lumber, and talked to the construction crew. Charles and Sam came over with a crew and in one week, framed the second floor, raised the roof, and tacked on most of the silver board. We were broke again, but, in our back yard, was a huge, silver house.
The next big project was insulation. The Farm made a deal with a factory in Nashville, who just threw away all their loose fiber glass scraps. Free fiber glass! So one of the truckers filled a semi with fiber glass and parked it in front of our house. Three of us, one hot summer day, put on long-sleeved shirts, gloves, and bandanas over our faces and unloaded the truck. We filled three rooms up to the ceiling with fiber glass. To put it in the walls, I brought home some 4X3 book cover stock from the print shop, stapled it to the studs, and stuffed the fiber glass behind it. We also filled the attic a foot deep in fiber glass.
Thomas, one of the Farm electricians, came over one day and helped us wire the upstairs. I learned enough helping him that I could finish wiring the rest of the house by myself. Willie, the Farm plumber, and a guy who was here with his old lady to have a baby, put in all the plumbing, PVC for the drains, and copper for the running water.
Everyone had the same experience of seeing most of the house get built by somebody else. In the end it was hard to say who had built the house. Although we had all worked hard, it seemed to have happened by magic. Synergy is the hand of God.
This is what it looks like now