Building a House in the Country
In 1986 I bought an empty piece of farmland and forest in a quiet corner of rural Canada and began building a full-time country life for myself. I had a clean slate to create whatever house, gardens, water systems and outbuildings I wanted, and the adventure of designing and creating these things with my own hands has become my life’s work. And while I’m thankful for the successes, it’s also easy to see some of the things I should have done differently. So let me pass on a few pieces of wisdom borne from hands-on experience. They’ll save you time and money, and help achieve better success if you have the same dreams I do.
Design and Building
If I could change just one thing about the house I built, it would be the east-west orientation of the rooms. As it is now, all the bedrooms are on the west side, with kitchen and living room facing east. This setup works fine, but since designing the floor plan I’ve come to realize how nice it is to wake up to the morning sun. And I’m not the only one who understands this, either. The classic design book “A Pattern Language” lists “sleeping to the east” as one of the 253 archetypal design patterns that makes the built environment attractive and inviting across cultures and situations. This design feature is timeless for a reason.
Now that my kids are starting to grow up, they’re interested in building homes for themselves on the same property where they grew up. And if I’m lucky enough to actually live next to my grand kids, we’ll be building all our new houses with structural insulated panels. Often called SIPs for short, I dearly wish I’d built my house with this material, too. I know from subsequent experience with SIPs, and seeing how the structures perform in all seasons afterwards, that this system is amazingly energy-efficient, astonishingly strong, plus bat, squirrel and mouse proof.
The windows I installed originally are all wood, both inside and out. They look great, but the outside surfaces need regular maintenance, and that’s a lot of work. If I were choosing windows again, I’d pay the extra money for aluminum-clad wood windows. You get the warmth and good looks of wood, without the outdoor refinishing obligation. Also, the best windows are performance certified by an organization — the National Window Wise Certification Program (800-813-9616).
Heat, Water and Power
Another change I’d make is to heat with an outdoor wood burning furnace connected to radiant hydronic heating pipes in the floor. In fact, I have made that change. We now have an outdoor boiler. Cleaner burning outdoor furnaces make this option environmentally responsible these days, and it’s also a labor-saving feature, too. After cutting, splitting and stacking 20 years worth of ordinary stovewood, I know quite well that you’ll save lots of effort if you can cut your wood big and store it under cover right next to the place you’ll be burning it. Both these advantages come with an outdoor furnace set up. Just build a woodshed right next to the furnace itself and you’re all set. With both a house and workshop on my property, the advantage of stoking one big fire for everything is pretty attractive. The system heats domestic hot water, too.
Perhaps the greatest number of small things I wish I’d done differently have to do with my water system. And since these changes are small, I’ve put most of them into practice after seeing the need. The most important has to do with water pumps.
Unless your water source is less than 20 feet below the surface. I strongly recommend installing a submersible water pump. It doesn’t have to be particularly large (a 1/2 hp model is ideal for a single household), but the submersible design offers three advantages you’ll never enjoy with a less expensive jet pump or piston pump.
Since the submersible sits near the bottom of your well, it never needs to be primed and it never loses its prime. Just turn it on and it starts pushing water upwards. This bottom-of-the-well location also means that submersible pumps deliver much greater water flow for a given horsepower rating. And if all this isn’t enough, a submersible is also completely silent. Jet pumps may be cheaper, but they’re a whole lot less effective for anything other than very shallow installations.