My Affordable House: What I’d Do Differently

by Donna Schoenkopf

A few weeks ago I was asked what I’d do differently in building my house.

It’s a simple question, but one I had never been asked before and I had never thought about it. It just seemed that I had made my choices and that was that. But the question opened up a series of thoughts that are still percolating in my mind. After all, what I could do differently might really help someone who’s considering a project like mine—building their own home from scratch, out in the country, for next to nothing, comparatively speaking.

The materials I chose are great. I would choose them all again. They are simple, cheap, and environmentally sound. My house has a steel frame, metal siding and roof, concrete floor. Steel is termite-proof and doesn’t use my best friends—trees—and it withstands a whole lot of weather out here in Oklahoma. Metal siding and roof, same thing. The concrete floor is cool in the summer, and because the steel skeleton of my house was embedded in the concrete when it was still wet, it makes for a really, really strong structure.

I wasn’t thrilled with putting in fiberglass insulation, but agreed to it because organic insulation (denim, organic wool) was way too expensive. But now, after my scare about mold seizing my house and realizing mold loves organic materials, I am really happy that it is nonorganic.

I have plastic plumbing pipe. I didn’t want plastic pipes because I’m wary of plastic anything, and worried about plastic molecules in my drinking water. I know that sounds a little crazy, but remember the ancient Romans. They had lead pipes and eventually a whole lot of them went crazy from the lead leaching into the water. Who knows what plastic is doing to our brains? But I couldn’t afford a half mile of metal pipe. And, it turns out, the plastic is easy and cheap to repair, and is able to adjust to the earth’s freezing and heaving. So that’s all good(ish).

Another thing I did exactly right was the design of my house. It is a simple rectangle. I have one large room inside, which allows for great air circulation and flow. A wall of sliding glass doors on the south lets breezes flow through in the summer, cutting way down on cooling costs. Usually I don’t turn on the air conditioning until the hottest hours of the afternoon. In the winter the sun is low and heats the house so well that I don’t need to turn the heat on until evening or if it’s an overcast day.

The siting of my house is perfect most of the time. It sits on top of a hill with an endlessly fascinating view, seasons changing, wildlife going about their daily business, dogs providing comedy. But where I put it leads me to the subject at hand—what I’d do differently.

 

Where to Put the House

Sure, the view is great. Seriously. It is great. But being on top of a hill during a thunder and lightning storm, in a house with glass walls, makes for some really, really scary moments. The lightning flashes around the house and seems as though it’s actually inside. And, according to my friend the Internet, the worst, absolute worst, place you can be in a lightning storm is on top of a hill. Well, maybe not the worst. The worst would be to be on top of a hill under a tree. Yup, I’ve got a great big cottonwood right next to the house. Just great.

 

Tornado Alley

Build a Storm Shelter

 What was I thinking when I didn’t provide for one. Jeez. I live in Tornado Alley, for cryin’ out loud. Last year a tornado moved right overhead. Seriously. Right overhead. The whole sky swirled. It was magnificent and terrifying. And then, Ladies and Gentlemen, it proceeded to wipe out blocks and blocks of homes and trees a mile away in Tecumseh. Thank God for my neighbors Steve and Sheila, who provide shelter for all of us in this part of the woods.

 

Listen to Peewee

 As some of you already know, I had a big scare about mold this past month. I thought I was going to lose my house. It turned out I really didn’t have much of a problem and it will be easily fixed, but I could have avoided all the anguish and the cost by doing what Peewee suggested I do when he was building my house. (He’s never pushy. Just suggests. But I have learned that his suggestions are serious and I should listen.)

He suggested that I keep the blower of my heater/air conditioner on all the time. He said it would keep the dust down because the air intake would filter it out. I disregarded that suggestion because I was concerned about the cost, monetarily and environmentally. But it turns out that mold loves dust. My steel rafters are exposed and my metal air duct too, so dust collects up there. Not only does mold gravitate to the dust to feed off of it; the dust also causes condensation on that air duct during the summer. And that also attracts mold.

So. Keep the blower going.

Peewee also suggested I turn the fans on in the winter. He said the air circulation would keep the house much warmer and keep the condensation down. I tried it, but because I didn’t remember his instructions about which way the fans should blow, I felt nothing but cold air and disregarded his suggestion. When Neighbor Jim finally showed me (after the mold scare) how to get the air going the right way, I began to feel a soft warmth I had not felt before. If I had done it at the beginning my house would be completely mold free.

 

Keep the Foundation Dry

I really didn’t pay attention to Peewee’s suggestion to have a concrete apron around the perimeter of my house. I didn’t like the look of it. I wanted to eventually put a wooden deck around the house. So I told him no. I told him I would put in a french drain and he said that would work. Told him I’d do it myself. He brought me a whole bunch of free gravel and I laboriously wheelbarrowed it around the base of the house. I thought a french drain was just gravel that allowed the water to percolate down and away. Well, it’s not. A french drain is a large, perforated pipe under the gravel that carries the water away.

Oh.

And then, to make matters worse, I started a huge compost pile on the north side of the house, the side that never gets sun in the winter and stays wet for months. The compost pile caused rainwater to flow toward the house, instead of away from it. Peewee had carefully scraped that ground to have a nice water flow down the hill. I totally ruined the plan.

Oh.

Now I want a french drain, the removal of the compost heap, the ground re-scraped so the water flows down the hill, and ...

 

Gutters

If you build your house on clay, you better have gutters. And I don’t. So I’m gonna put them in.

When Peewee and I were discussing the design of the house and how I wanted the roof, he said I really should have more overhang from my eaves. Did I listen? No. I didn’t like the look of a more extended roof line. I was trying to get a modern, very streamlined look. And I wanted the southern wall of glass to let in winter sun for warmth. That part I got right. But, I really and truly should have put some gutters up. It would have saved tons of water from running off my roof onto the gravel, which has caused even more settling of the ground around my foundation, which has caused more water collection.

Sigh.

 

The Concrete Floor

When the concrete was being poured I was asked about sealing it or coloring it. I was worried about cost at the time and thought about how much I liked the color of concrete. It is a very cool, neutral gray. So I said no.

Another mistake.

I have had dog footprints, coffee spills, salad dressing spills, my footprints all permanently embedded in the concrete. It turns out you can’t get stains out of concrete because it is porous and everything just sinks into it. Forever.

With a sealed floor I could sweep and mop the floor so that it would get really clean. With a sealed floor I wouldn’t have to worry about my bathroom floor getting too wet from the water from my beautiful open shower, and with a colored floor, I could have some beautiful, natural-looking designs flowing through my whole house.

Damn.

 

The Outside and the Stuff that Goes with It

I have struggled with landscaping here at Chigger Lake. I am on clay. Clay is dense. Clay is hard to grow things in. Especially apple trees.

Carole and Judy had secretly given Peewee some money to buy me some fruit trees and one day he showed up with two apple trees and a cherry tree. I was thrilled.

But instead of taking the time to really dig deep into the clay and put soil amendments down in the holes, I got tired (I had already planted over fifty shrubs, bushes and whatnot), and said to myself that I would somehow add amendments after the fact.

Those poor trees struggled against that dense clay. The cherry tree died. It affected me deeply. I still mourn its death. The two apple trees held on, but just barely. But little by little they grew, sending out their feeble leaves which were pretty much decimated by whatever bug decided it would have them for lunch, thank you very much.

Eventually I began adding sand on top of the ground around their bases to mitigate the clay, and Miracle-Gro (I was desperate) and tree food stakes. Not very much happened, but at least they didn’t die.

And then, a year after they were planted, I added manure. That did the trick. They had their best year yet.

Sometime during this fiasco Rocky the Guy Who Knows Everything (no, he really does) told me that I could actually plant these trees on top of the ground. I could have a some sort of bottomless container with great soil and amendments in it and just stick a sapling in it. It would have no bottom so that eventually, when the tree was strong enough, the roots could penetrate the clay and the tree would live happily ever after.

So that’s what I’ll do.

Next time.

the house

 

Machinery

I shall never, ever, as long as I live, buy another gas-powered lawn mower with a pull start. I pulled my arm out of the socket trying to start it. Got it going once. And now that damn thing still sits out in the back, rusting away. $125 for nothing. Grrrrrrr.

And I shall never, ever buy another gas-powered, pull-start weed whacker. Nor will I buy a battery-powered weed whacker. Almost $200 for those pieces of crap. After no time at all the battery ran down, so I only got a tiny bit of work done. Then the battery refused to take a charge at all. Harumph.

I shall buy nothing but electric mowers and whackers. I love them. I don’t care that I have a long extension cord on them. They are quiet and strong, and start with the push of a button. I salute you, O Electric Lawn Machines!

 

Washing Machine Plumbing 

I have always wanted to use the graywater from my washer to water my lawn. I didn’t tell Peewee in time to have him plumb for this, so the drain from the washer goes directly to the septic tank. All that good water going to waste.

I rigged up a long, clear, flexible vinyl hose to the washer and now have the water being put to good use. But I have to unroll it, pull it out the east sliding glass doors, and roll it up again when I’m done. There have been two, two, occasions when I forgot to put the hose out the door. Uh oh. Not pretty.

 

A Final Note

I am going to get a home equity line of credit to repair these mistakes. At least some of them. I was thinking about getting a reverse mortgage, which would keep me from having to make payments, but I was advised to research it further. There are a lot of costs up front for these kinds of loans, so much so that I would have little left to do anything with. So I am now looking into getting a home equity loan. That will encumber me with payments, but what are you gonna do?

It’s quite a list. When I write it all down like this, I get a kind of clenching in my stomach. But what’s done is done and I’ve never been one who moans and groans after the fact.

Little by little, inch by inch, I shall pay for my mistakes.

With a damn smile on my face.

Because that’s the kinda woman I am.

An article about lots of things Donna did right is here.

Donna Schoenkopf recently retired from teaching at 61st Street School in South Central Los Angeles, and has moved back to Oklahoma, where she spent her teens.
donna@fourstory.org

Comments

Compared to many, your list of do-overs is pretty small, so you sure did good in the first place.  Re the concrete: is there a stain you can put down even now?  Won’t be perfect but may be able to stain then seal it?  Maybe Gary Larson’s At Home web site has info on stain/sealing concrete products.  He does the At Home radio show.  Re planting trees in heavy adobe, does a heavy-duty gasoline (electric) post hole diggger/auger get through the clay lens?  Can rent one of those and dig a bunch of deep holes to start, methinks.(Or auger on the back of a tractor?if your neighbors have one?)  Unless the clay lense if 40’ deep.  heh-heh. Do grounded lightning rods work?  Here in CA. we so seldom get thunderstorm, I wouldn’t have a clue. And for home equity line of credit, what I’ve done is to do projects in chunks, pay for it, then spend the year paying it back with as much $ I can throw at it, then on to the next chunk.  So you can see the light at the end of the loan tunnel, rather than doing it all at once and ending up with a huge number that gets too overwhelming.  Just a thought.

But your open plan house is gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous! Ya done good! Indeed!

2011-02-15 by Ann Calhoun

We’ve had a home equity line of credit for as long as I can remember.  And we pretty much do the same thing Ann does….a project, pay it ‘way down, then do another project.  Don’t know if they all work like this, but ours requires only payment of the interest every month, which is $20-$30.  Not a good idea because the balance never decreases and eventually you have to pay the entire original amount.  But there have been months when a crisis occurred, and we did pay only the interest.  It’s a pretty flexible arrangement that requires self-discipline.  I recommend it!

2011-02-15 by Betsy

I think building a home on a hill in Oklahoma is bold and audacious, but the fact that you don’t just think green, you act on it makes my spirit soar.

Concrete floors can be painted with an oil base, top quality paint, in one coat. Use a full gloss and add a little bit of sand into the paint tray, or else it will be slippery as ice when wet. The grain of the sand will be symmetric according to the rolling pattern. It lasts a decade or so. I’ve done many garage floors for people. The main thing- use the best paint you can find. Forget two part epoxies, they just make a thicker coat, while lacking the adhesion of an oil base industrial coating. With a fiuve gallon container of paint, which will run you under 150 bucks and about thirty bucks of sundries, if that, you’re concrete is completely protected, shiny clean, totally sweepable and moppable, and you can choose any color you wish, with great precision. I always did a gray with a little bit of blue in it, and never had an unsatisfied customer. I can’t take straight gray, it makes me want to barf, I got have a little life in it.

If you want endurance, go with white, there;s minimal tint in the paints vehicle, and its the most reflective, adding endurance, but does show dirt. So, if you like gray, you are in perfect shape, because paint manufacturers all have a dialed in straight gray formula that lasts and protects. If you’re unwilling to put some sand in the mix, forget this idea. The two part epoxies are matte and non slip, but pricey, and will not stick for long on exteriors.

I think a rectangular structure is elegant and awesome. Ideal maximization of space, and clean noble lines. Various intricacies in the design of a self built home denote, to me, flourishes that border on insecurity. Its really whats inside the home that impresses me with flourishes and aesthetic design.

You are my Goddess when you talk about building as strong a structure as possible. What is the point of building a mediocre structure, unless its just that you cant afford structurally powerful materials.
It makes all of the difference in the world to me. A home should be built to last.

My dream home is and adobe pyramid, but I’ll settle for steel siding if I cant do the adobe right. I love pyramids, they’re so structurally strong, unique and beautiful, in my eyes. You just have to use a wider patch of land to get your floor space equal or better than a conventional pad. There’s no flat space for a tornado to catch on a pyramid, and I would not be surprised to see a tornado ride over a pyramid’s sides. You cant blow a pyramid away. However, the physics of tornadoes are not well understood, but pyramids are structurally awesome.

Finally, basements are pricey, but must have in tornado alley, and if I were you, I would install a micro basement before entertaining any other home improvements. We live in a time of dramatic weather events, and I think it will continue. When I say micro, I mean just that. Small, real small, deep, real deep, will be the best protection, because tornados have no power below the surface of the Earth. However, your contractors in Oklahoma may be able to fix you up with something big enough to use as a fun room. I just love basements. They’re well insulated, too!

2011-02-16 by robert hagen

Donna I thoroughly enjoyed that.  You made some very good points.  When and if I ever get to move back to Oklahoma you will design my house and I will seek your input.  I enjoy reading “your stuff”.  Thanks.

2011-02-16 by Eddie Hurt

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