I came out of architecture school brimming with optimism, hoping to change the world, but the self-sufficient homestead we tried to build failed in several ways. That broken dream burdened us for sixteen years. I hope this post helps someone, somewhere, avoid the mis-steps we took.
I grew up in Rocket City USA, otherwise known as Huntsville, Alabama; Jan Davis, one of the first American women in space, graduated from Huntsville High School seven years before me. Within this atmosphere where anything was possible, my parents ran a groundbreaking health food store, and brought in a steady stream of speakers about all things natural, holistic, and sustainable, and these principles grew to be strong ideals for me in my teen years.
My work in architecture school built on these principles, and two years before graduation I discovered the beginnings of the New Urbanism, and so began thinking of the sustainability of the community as well as the buildings. Upon graduation in 1983, I realized I had a choice to make: focus on the urban scale or the architectural scale. After much deliberation with Wanda, we chose to build a self-sufficient homestead and practice these principles at the level of the family and the scale of a single plot of land.
We found an acre in a rural community marketed as family farms, but which in reality became an exurban subdivision. We thought we’d follow the original promise of the place, and not only live from the food we raised there, but also reduce our resource consumption to unheard-of levels. That was our first mistake.
The Appraisal Problem
We designed the house around a central courtyard shaded by four maples in summer, but which admitted full sunlight after they dropped their leaves in the fall. The house did all the right passive solar things, and was superinsulated, with 12” double walls and 16” of insulation in the roof, plus lots of thermal mass in the floors and two Russian fireplaces. In other words, it was built far better than almost everything around it, and at greater expense. Banking was much different then, and the early 80s were frothy days in the area, so our banker made the original construction loan based on my too-optimistic estimate (having never estimated a job before) and my job with a prominent local architect.
When we inevitably had to go back for more money, they sent out the estimator that would change our world. By this time, the house was pretty far along but by no means finished. And when he took a look at everything we were doing, he had no idea what to do with it and actually started discounting all the things that were actually extras. When his appraisal came back, it was $27 per square foot, a ridiculous number by any standard. Regular subdivision sprawl houses were going for at least twice that amount at the time.
But by that point, we were stuck. And so we did the only thing we could do: keep doing as much of the work as possible ourselves, and get a bunch of credit cards to finish the house. It was brutal. We and our parents would work on the house until after midnight most nights to save money. And after we moved in, I remember knowing for several years exactly what I’d be doing as far as the eye could see: working as many overtime hours as I could get to keep the credit card companies at bay. There’s more on the house here.
The Time Problem
As anyone knows who has ever had a garden, fruits and vegetables don’t grow themselves. We had a double row of apple trees and plum trees around the outer courtyard, and they took some time, but the vegetables obviously took much more.
And then there was the problem of living 20 minutes from work on a low-traffic day; the round-trip was usually more like an hour a day. But it doesn’t stop there. When we moved into the house in April 1987, there were still many things unfinished and there wasn’t a stitch of anything other than grass and gravel once we stepped outside. When you’re young and building things you’ve never built before, trips to the lumber yards a half hour or more away are likely to produce about half of the parts and tools needed to eventually finish the job. During those years, we totaled about 50,000 miles per years on our two cars. You do the math.
The Culture Problem
Add up all that time, and you can probably guess what happened to the garden we planted each spring. I counted on our two young sons to help a lot in the garden, because I remembered how much I and my sisters loved working in the garden as kids.
But one thing I missed was the fact that our parents had created a culture of loving to raise fruits and vegetables since the three of us were very young, and they did it with us. Growing up, our garden was by the lake on a nearby mountaintop where they hoped to build someday, so we were never there without them, and it became a family thing.
But we weren’t all just working together; they laid out a plot for each of us within the garden that became our own, and that’s where we spent most of our time. So we took ownership and learned to love it, and so when they needed our help in the larger garden they tended, we were happy to help.
This is a far cry from what we did, which was to tell the kids to “go weed the garden” while we worked on some of the countless unfinished projects on the house. You can guess how well that went, with work in the garden being nothing but chores to two boys then in elementary school. So it should be no surprise that by June each year, the garden was choked by weeds. Later in our time there, we just gave up and seeded it with grass.
The End of the Line
I opened my own firm August 1, 1991, and it immediately began sucking up 80 hours or more of my time per week. It quickly became apparent that the dream of a functioning homestead was over. Yes, the house still mostly conditioned itself, with utility bills sometimes as low as $17 per month. And yes, the poorly-pruned apples and pears were still bearing fruit. But the ideal of living off the land just wasn’t going to happen; we would have died of sleep deprivation. We ended up selling eight years to the day later, on August 1, 1999.
What to Do Now?
One of the biggest changes in recent years is the ability of some people to work from home. That’s mediated, of course, by whether you have young children. I’ve worked at home or within walking distance of home ever since 1999, and love it. So some things work today that didn’t work then. But in any case, look at your Web of Daily Life and try to figure out how to get as much of it as possible within the self-propelled distances of walking and cycling. Using biointensive methods, you can raise a lot more food on much less land than row-croppers ever dreamed of. So an urban homestead isn’t an oxymoron anymore; it’s something you might actually consider.
Then, try to figure out how to begin with your home as small as possible. We built 3,000 square feet because the expectation back then was building your complete home, rather than starting small and adding on as needed. Through the Katrina Cottages initiative and the subsequent Project:SmartDwelling, we’ve learned that the smarter thing is to start much smaller.
So it all comes down to this: there are three keys to homestead survivability: 1. Acknowledge the time it will take in real life to do the things you want to do on your homestead. 2. Build a culture in your family that will get your kids involved as happy partners. 3. Get the money right, both on the income side and the expenses side. Our failure at our homestead dream was a comprehensive failure at all three of these. Get these things right, and you can do far better.