HOME away from HOME

In a former life, and for more than 11 years, I travelled 90 kilometers daily for a job I loved in Toronto. For the most part, I enjoyed the trek, however, through the years, the scenery changed from green to grey with neighbourhood views replaced by concrete sound barriers.  By the time I left that life, my morning commute took 75 minutes.      

Fast forward and I’ve been working from home on Vancouver Island for more than a decade. My most recent commute has been a rather short one; a few minutes down the hallway to my dining table, a view of neighbouring homes and gardens and a schedule that requires using a car only once a week; a much better work/life balance than I had in the Big Smoke.

Our Shirley build is another 75-minute drive from home, and while much of it includes spectacular scenery along winding roads, it has meant almost three hours in the car some days, which has led us to make a temporary and part time move to the building site.  

When interviewing others who have also taken the plunge to build, many solutions were shared; staying put and driving back and forth, renting near the build site, living with nearby family, and selling the existing home and living onsite in trailers or huts.

For us, what has made the most sense, and while we are both still working, is to live part time here and part time there, a home and a home away from home.  We are however, talking about two very different homes. 

Our temporary Shirley abode is a decades old tent trailer, reminiscent of the wonderful summer holidays our family shared when I was a child. I have very happy memories of Expo 67, lying on one side of the trailer with my Mrs. Beasley doll, while laughing at my brothers’ jokes from the other side, and falling asleep listening to the fire crackling outside. I am far from 7 now and quite certain that the new memories are going to be very different.  While the view from the front door is spectacular, the look inside is dated and tired. Luckily, the roof doesn’t leak and our snoring scares the bears.  Steps away from our future bed, we tell ourselves it’s all part of the adventure, and while I no longer have Mrs. Beasley, I still keep my flashlight nearby, and walk very briskly to the portable toilet just as I did way back when.    

Our trailer is a 2-minute walk to the meditation corner, a fire pit where we can distance ourselves, and our family’s trailers, leaving us close enough to feel the love and the heat. We have what we need; tasty food, clean water, and great company.  There is nothing quite like waking to the sound of songbirds and the buzz of bees… and saws. 

So, for now, we are camping, living alongside our family of builders, dividing our time between two different worlds. And while I never thought I would be living in a tent at this age, we are grateful to be safe, warm, and dry, when so many others in this world are not.  Less time on the road, means more time on the land; close enough to have conversations and make decisions while we adjust to our new locale, roughing it now to make way for the smooth life later on.    

Show me the MONEY

One of the most challenging aspects of our new build has been managing the budget.  Don’t get me wrong, I have been managing money for a long time, and I learned its value very young. 

I grew up in a house where finances were private, an adult arena. I didn’t know about mortgages or hydro bills; it was considered vulgar to talk about money, especially in front of the children. My parents were raised working class, so as a result, I was working for my allowance at an early age, babysitting for airfares by the time I was 13 and by 17, I was paying my own way through college with three part time jobs. Married at 20, I have been keeping track of the dollars and the debts ever since.  

So, when it came time to talk house budget, I felt prepared.  It’s more money than I’ve ever seen and I have a healthy respect for those big numbers. I have a beautiful excel spreadsheet that I now consider an intimate part of my life where weekly, I move the numbers around; creative with the cash. While at times, it’s daunting, luckily, I am a realist, so I keep track of every single expense and am generous in my estimates.  I would rather find money than find a mistake.     

Holding the ‘purse strings’ as my mother referred to them, has been an exercise in deepening my inquiry into what we need vs what we want.  We’ve had to make hard choices about what matters most, what has the largest impact, and what will outlive us. We are building for the future knowing the house will be standing much longer than we will. We recognize that we are merely stewards of this place and that others will someday lay their heads here; we owe it to our children’s children to make the best financial decisions now.  Lucky for us, the views are priceless.  

As we ask the hard questions, we revisit our intentions, knowing that what we compromise on now, will show up later on.  Our choices need to stand the test of time.  And, because we are guided by the figures and not our fantasies, we are steadfast in our understanding that if we don’t see it on the sheet, we don’t buy it off the shelf.  We remind ourselves often that it’s a luxury to build, and that humbling tempers our desire to add pretty when what we need is practical. 

Now, I’m not saying that we won’t go over budget, as many more seasoned than us have told us, it’s inevitable.  Something unforeseen always pops up and already, still in the earliest stages, we see that in our project. But we know what our priorities are; rain water over bath water, compost over flush, form and function over frivolous. Playing the long game feels prudent to us as we heed the teaching of Nelson Henderson and “plant trees under whose shade we don’t expect to sit.

Having Blind FAITH

One of the most interesting outcomes for me in the process of designing and building a house, has been the learning that there is so much that you don’t see, not only behind the scenes, but underneath them.  And what remains unseen, is as important, if not more important, than that which is visible. Such is building and such is life.

I now understand more fully, the expression, ‘from the ground up’; and that what stands firmly on the land is only as good as the foundation it rests upon.  For our project, while I know very little about house construction, I have made a conscious choice to learn as much as possible about every aspect and to participate hands on, every chance I get.  And while I have always appreciated those in the construction industry, I now have a new found respect for all those involved.  

Because we started with raw land (there was a dug well onsite, and hydro at the main road), we had to clear trees in order to create a space to build.  We intentionally chose not to clear a swath of land, but to measure our footprint and take only what was necessary.  We carved out an access road to the house site, procured the necessary services to have water drawn up from the well (this will be our back up water supply to our rain water system), and organized power to be brought from the road onto the site.  Today, underneath the ground we walk on, is a maze of trenches, pipes, and cables, winding their way to our new house, providing some basic and much appreciated services.  Where there were once trees (don’t worry, we have lots left), there is now a hole, a carved space poised to receive the foundation that will hold up what’s built, and where we will hold each other up, as our lives move forward. 

In life, a foundation represents stability, the base on which our strength is forged. It’s that solid platform on which we stand, hold steadfast our beliefs, bear the weight of what’s heavy; it’s our safe place to land. House building is similar. Everything rises from the foundation; a firm land base on which concrete footings and walls bear the weight of the building and the brunt of the build. 

This week I watched with anticipation, as more than 30 meters of concrete poured from a height into formed wooden frames while a skilled team of five, coaxed it into place, smoothed it out, and helped it settle into a permanent place hold.  And just like that, in less than a few hours, the shape of what’s to come was set in stone. I marveled at what would soon be buried, sitting silently in its own strength, ready and willing to take on the weight of our lives in the home of our dreams. 

The FAMILY that builds together…

The discussion went something like this “Who wants to take care of us when we’re older, so we can age in place and die at home?”  And, the response went something like this, no hands went up.  It was Christmas 2016 and we were all together; three grown children, our daughter’s partner, and our son’s dog.  The conversation expanded, and the ideas flowed; we talked about creating an intentional community, supporting each other, sharing spaces, the cost of living in beautiful BC, and what our collective future might look like if we all made a move, a bold move, to live communally. 

Now this type of living is not completely new to us, my healthy parents moved in to share our Sidney, BC home in 1995, just after we arrived on the island.  We lived and learned together. My father died with us nine years later and then our mother, 11 years later, having lived with us for 20 years.  So, our kids understood what it was to share space, to live with elders, to put family first.  We were seven in a 1972 raised bungalow, and we were happy. 

Home for us has never meant ‘house’, it has always meant ‘family’ and for us that has always included many; all those who have shared time with us, had a place in our home, held a place in our heart.  So many have come through our doors, sat at our table, and shared our life’s journey.  Leaving this home will not be easy but it will be intentional.  We’ll hold our memories close.  And, while there is great anticipation, there is also trepidation. Fear, however, doesn’t serve any of us well, and we have never based our decisions on what might go wrong, but rather what might go right.

Back to that dynamic conversation that continues to be shaped by life’s journey, by circumstance and now by COVID. The irony is not lost on us; we are building a sustainable lifestyle in precarious pandemic times.  And we are grateful, to know what’s possible and to be healthy enough to make it happen. Houses are not built on love, but a strong foundation has certainly held us up during this time.    

And yes, we know how privileged we are; we are grateful.  We recognize that many will never live in, own, or build their own home; we are blessed.  We know we have a responsibility; to take only what we need, to be conservative with natural resources, to create a small footprint, and to steward the land with future generations in mind; we are humbled.

And so, as we move forward with whole hearts and half the space, we are asking as many questions as possible, learning all we can from those who know more, and leaning into another way of living, on purpose, with purpose. 

FLOWING with Wisdom

Those who know me well will tell you that I am not sentimental nor am I nostalgic. I don’t pine for a bygone era nor do I wish for the return of an earlier time.

I do however spend time reflecting on the past, primarily to see what I can learn from it and to determine what I might take with me into the present and beyond. I believe that we can harness a lot from those who came before us; sometimes the worst that we don’t wish to repeat, more often, the wisdom that helped those with more time and less money, and out of necessity or reverence, develop creative and sustainable solutions.

The longer my mother is gone, the more I recognize how clever she was, how much she valued simplicity and how universal and timeless her ideas. As time marches on, I find myself reaching back to that wisdom and to the solutions that might work just as well in 2019 as they did in 1969.

When we were children, there was very little money. A small family, only five us in the country, meant we depended on each other, without support from others. That sense of imposed isolation, while difficult at times, has the ability to inspire good thinking, perseverance and self reliance. And while I am more a proponent of inter dependence than independence, when you don’t have the option, you learn to make do.

When I was a child, waste was not welcome. My mother had a sink next to her washing machine, connected by a large grey rubber hose where she washed in order, starting with whites, then the colours, and finally the dark and dirty. The water from all but the last load, was returned via that rubber hose; there simply wasn’t the money to use more water, nor as my mother advised was there a need to waste perfectly good water that could be reused.

The same logic she applied to clothing, was also applied to people. We bathed as a group on bath days, although one at a time. And while there wasn’t a shower in our house, I’m not sure we would have used one, my mother couldn’t understand the concept of water ‘simply running down a drain’. It made much more sense to her to fill the tub once, and as with our clothes, she washed us from cleanest to dirtiest. The water changed colour and lost its heat from bath one to bath three, but luckily for me, my brothers were often filthy, which meant my cleanliness was rewarded and I bathed first.

There was also no dishwasher, well not one that plugged in anyway. And even if the money had been available, I don’t think my mother would have opted for one, she would have seen that too as wasteful, as well as a missed opportunity for the kid connection. We took turns washing and drying and fighting over whose turn it was to do which. We washed our dishes just like we washed our clothes and ourselves; glasses, cups, cutlery, plates and then pots and pans, in order of cleanliness, always in the same sink, and no rinsing allowed. While I never looked forward to doing the dishes, I do have fond memories of tea towel wars, laughter, and the odd dishwater fight.

As we look forward and prepare to build a house for our life’s final chapter, our desires and our design have been shaped by those childhood memories. Well aware that we have less available water on the planet than my mother might have ever imagined, we have chosen carefully and consciously. We are going to harvest the gift that is the rain, live without a dishwasher or a bathtub and even consider ‘composting’ toilets. Grateful for what will pour from our ‘low flow faucets’ we will continue, as my mother did, to revere water, all the while remembering that in 2019, one in ten worldwide are living without clean water.