Monday, May 08, 2006

Trickle Brook Hall

Click for full sized pictureChief amongst my prized possessions is my house, Trickle Brook Hall. It is a custom-built handicap-accessible ranch house that looks like a log home on the inside, and it is everything I ever hoped in a house. And I had some very demanding hopes, too.

The story of the house begins more than 12 years ago, with the kind of daydreaming over log home floorplan books that is usually idle. And indeed it seemed like idle dreaming even to me for a long time. We bought our first house in Berlin, Vermont, a story-and-a-half Cape Cod that was a nice starter house, but that really didn't suit us in some ways. Near a noisy road, on a cleared lot, with a small living room and smaller kitchen, and two stories. Still, it was good in a lot of other ways, and we really liked it. But one day we saw a log home for sale nearby and decided to go to the open house just to see what it was like, and all at once, those old daydreams flooded up. We decided it was time to move on.

What followed was crushing, soul-rending defeat. We sold that house and moved into a rental while we sought for suitable land and tried to arrange construction of our dream home, based on my architectural drawings which were in turn based on a standard floorplan from Northeastern Log Homes. We had a parcel of land, a closing date, a deposit. We'd spent thousands on septic design, ground testing, permits, etc. We'd spent many hours exploring the forested parcel of land on a quiet country road where our home would be, sitting there saying "this will be the view from the living room!" We were very much in love. And then it all fell apart.

Turns out that the primary limit on how much house you can build is not what you can afford, not at all. The primary limit is what it will appraise at. And for most log homes, the gap between building cost and appraisal is high, very high. We tried plugging it by adding bedrooms to the plan that we didn't need, by cutting costs, etc. but it couldn't be done. Most people who build log homes bridge the gap either by already having the land (so it contributes to the appraised value but not to the costs), by doing a lot of the work themselves (to cut costs, which is fine if you have the skills), or by having lots of fluid assets -- i.e., buckets of cash. We had none of those things. Taking a loss of over $4,000 as well as incalculable heartbreak, we abandoned the parcel just before closing and started looking at the "houses for sale" market.

Click for full sized picture29 viewings later we settled on a house, and I really mean "settled". Our landlords wanted us out, winter was coming, and we were weary and increasingly convinced we would never find a house like what we wanted: wooded setting, no road noise, open floorplan, on a passable road, in good shape, and ideally a log home or close. What we ended up with was a huge mansion with an embarassing plenitude of everything. An indoor, inground heated swimming pool... in Vermont! (We were swimming at a health club, which costs a lot of money and time, so we thought it'd be nice to have our own.) Ornate landscaped acres with fountains. Five bedrooms, two living rooms, three porches. Two fireplaces plus an indoor BBQ grill. A one-car attached garage and an oversized four-car detached garage, plus a shed and a barn. And on and on. So much house.

Well, it cost a fortune to keep up, with an old inefficient forced-air heating system and lots of things breaking down and oil prices skyrocketing. The open floorplan between kitchen and living room wasn't enough to make it possible for people in the kitchen to hear and talk to people in the living room. Our first winter we got pounded with $900 heating bills and $1200 charges to shovel snow off the roofs before they caved in and dozens of other costs. It was increasingly clear it wasn't the house for us. We started selling it and looking at options for where to go from here.

And finally got a break. Found a builder who could build on spec, so we didn't have to finance the building loans. I'd used another log company's floor plans to design a new plan that was simpler and cheaper, but still had the things we needed and wanted. We looked long and hard at what it was about "log home" we wanted and decided we could get 95% of the benefit (and a few extra goodies) at much less cost by doing conventional stick-built construction but putting knotty pine paneling up on all the interior walls -- plus we have low-maintenance rugged vinyl siding instead of logs that need lots of care. And the result was something that would come within reach of the appraisal -- the builder guaranteed that, because if it didn't he wouldn't be able to finance it to build it anyway!

Click for full sized pictureTook months to find a good piece of land, but even there we got very lucky. A few bids we'd placed didn't pan out and good thing too because we were able to come in on an even better parcel, in a great location, with lower building costs. Six acres of mixed forest in a quiet area near a reservoir, but right off a paved road without any hefty hills to climb to get to it.

Took a year to build the house and along the way we put a lot of money into credit cards to get the best of a lot of things that'd be hard to upgrade later. Full basement, best kitchen appliances and cabinets and countertops, a good woodstove, things like that. Put off a few things (the back porch, a metal roof) for later since those are easy enough to add on after the fact. But we made it all work and moved in in November 2004, just before Thanksgiving. We're still paying off some of those expenditures, but it's worth it.

Click for full sized pictureSome of the features of the house:
  • Open floorplan with a great room including a vaulted-ceiling living room and huge kitchen separated only by a peninsula.
  • Handicap-accessible throughout.
  • Huge porch/deck on the front, with room to add one on the back too.
  • Corian countertops, custom cabinets, undermount sink.
  • 5-burner high-BTU gas cooktop with downdraft; double wall convection oven.
  • Big all-fridge and all-freezer side-by-side, best energy efficiency in the industry.
  • One of the top-rated dishwashers made.
  • Large walk-in pantry.
  • Utility room with cabinets and laundry, also serves as a mudroom and has a utility sink.
  • Attached two-car garage with workshop. Also includes a 4-cord-capacity woodshed.
  • Three bedrooms. The master bedroom has a door onto the porch.
  • Two full bathrooms. Master bathroom has a 4'x6' jacuzzi tub shower and huge his-and-hers closets.
  • Assisted-flush toilets in both bathrooms.
  • Horizontal knotty pine paneling on all interior walls plus the vaulted ceiling of the great hall.
  • Bulletproof Mannington Floors laminate floors everywhere. No carpet.
  • Big high-efficiency windows everywhere.
  • Good electrics. Lots of outlets, ceiling fans, good lights, Z-Wave home automation switches.
  • Radiant heating throughout the house, for efficient, silent, transparent heating.
  • Hearthstone woodstove with soapstone panels.
  • Six acres of quiet wooded land with a brook under our driveway. Our view out every window is forest.
Click for full sized pictureOf course, the downside of living here is that there's no high-speed Internet and no cable TV out here. We're relying on satellite for both, via WildBlue and DISH Network. But broadband will get to us before the forest gets to you.

Based on Regency-era naming conventions, we named the house Trickle Brook Hall, since it's on Trickle Brook Drive and Trickle Brook passes through the land. For a little extra amusing kick, we were working on building an area in Lusternia called Candyland, a whimsical area with candy corn fields and a peppermint bridge over a fizzy river with gummy fish swimming in it. We had a brown sugar hill, so naturally I reasoned it should have a molasses waterfall, and what else would a molasses waterfall flow into but a treacle brook? The descripton I wrote for the room "Treacle brook" in that area is essentially a description of my backyard, with candy added. (Though the nearby gingerbread house is not Trickle Brook Hall -- it wouldn't fit the whimsical fairy-tale feel of the area.)

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