Community October 21, 2010
Practicing Architecture

To design and build a house of one’s own is something most architects dream about. But the process can be both liberating and daunting to the ego. Two years after graduating from the Yale School of Architecture, I was able to design a house for my fiancé, Erik, and me. I imagined it as a personal challenge to synthesize the “Architecture with a capital A” I had learned in school with the reality of limited resources. I wanted to demonstrate that architecture was not a luxury. Our house would be high design for $75 a square foot and would be better than anything a developer could do for the same price. I saw it as an opportunity to showcase my talents and flex some design muscle. It would be a laboratory. The best things I had saved in my mental archive would be on display. I could try on a building of my design and check the fit. And, not least, it would be a giant business card.

The reasons that compelled me to design and build our house also made it paralyzing. What if it didn’t turn out the way I expected? How would I be able to make any decisions knowing the limitless range of possibilities? How would I react to the inevitable compromise of my design? What if it were ugly? Worse still, what if it were boring? There would be no jury or professor this time, as there had been in school; but by constructing my own house, I would be inviting public criticism not only of this building, but also of my design abilities.

Erik and I committed to the idea of owning a house after realizing we would be priced out of the appreciating real estate market in the Valley if we didn’t act quickly. A realtor friend stated succinctly, “You just need to get on the train. You might be on the caboose, but at least you’ll be on it.”

We thought that a remodel of an existing house would be a tamer training ground for the full house we could build later. So we searched. Then we offered. Then we searched. Then we hesitated. Then we searched. Then we underbid. Then we searched. Then we changed our minds.

Our Veuve Clicquot taste on a Budweiser budget was getting us nowhere, so we started to look at lots. Our original intention was to build a tiny guest quarters first and a bigger house later, when we could afford it. I gave myself the pleasurable assignment of designing the smallest possible house I could. I fondly remembered elements of a one-room cabin I had occupied in Gothic, Colorado, for a summer. I also drew from a cabin belonging to some friends of ours here–remote, peaceful, and self-contained. This was bliss. We were getting somewhere.

The spell was soon broken, however, as Erik’s brother, Matt, did some quick calculations with the cost of the land we were looking at: If we began immediately, the house we could afford would be a whopping 700 square feet. Fortunately, we found a less expensive lot in a great location, bought it, and began the design of the house we are building today.

I have never been able to envision “the perfect house.” Instead, I dream up components. When designing my own house occurred to me five years ago, I penciled a farmhouse Tower of Babel. A grand winding stair, open on four sides, surrounded a climbing wall for Erik. Each expanded landing served a discrete purpose and contained a single piece of furniture, such as a sink or a bed or a table. Another scheme was based on a thickened door frame with tansu-like drawers surrounding the opening. Still another had a bed on a ball-bearing track that could be pushed outside through shoji-screen doors for sleeping under the stars. Composing an entire house, however, required the laborious distillation of these disparate ideas into a coherent object.

Given a completely clean slate, designing seems virtually impossible. It is easy to feel mired in possibilities too numerous to consider. Usually a client helps to narrow the field by discussing likes, dislikes, budget, spatial requirements, preferred styles, and other parameters. Acting as one half of the client, Erik’s only requests were lots of gear storage and no granite countertops. I, on the other hand, knew about all the candy and had to impose more restrictions on myself in order to move forward. So, after considering the site, examining the zoning ordinances, and creating an artificial set of rules, I began.

In school, most of our projects were urban infill in which we diagrammed the intersection of grids, performed usage and form analyses, and looked at the building in several different scales in the context of the city. We would then do exhaustive redesign and present our best rendition to a jury in an approval process not unlike planning and zoning hearings. On a mid-block lot in Hailey, however, none of these approaches seemed to apply. Instead, I considered sun angles, adjacent structures, height limits, setback requirements, views, approaches, context of the neighborhood, and potential for expansion.

Knowing that labor was more expensive than materials, we set a goal of making this house easy to build, particularly because we would be doing some of the work ourselves. (Having worked in the woodshop and participated in the framing of a house at school, I felt justified in saying I was not one of those architects who had never pounded a nail. In reality, I find I have the time and skills to do little more than job-site cleanup.) It had to be a simple box with very few, if any, jigs and jogs. It would be two stories tall to save on roofing and foundations.

It would have pre-fabricated roof trusses. Everything would be designed on a four-foot module. We would use standard-sized materials as often as possible, from the studs to the windows to the concrete formwork. We would stack the plumbing. The inside would be clean, simple, and stark, both to minimize finish materials and to create a neutral backdrop for our future possessions. Since every inch of space would be critical, we would minimize hallways.

What emerged was a two-story house with two comfortable bedrooms, two bathrooms, a kitchen and double-height living room, a library/balcony/guest room, and a full basement. We planned for a garage later, another bedroom later, furniture later, a honeymoon later. The design evolved over a period of months into a strong form under a hipped roof with deep overhangs. It maintained most of the characteristics of the original seed.

We have learned that the first word in house design is compromise. No matter what your budget, you cannot have everything you want. We reluctantly gave up the walk-out basement-level patio, the wood windows, the laundry chute, the double lavs in the main bathroom, and the pergola in the backyard. We did not compromise on the number of windows, the stainless steel appliances in the kitchen, the garage doors at the side of the house rather than the front, or the relatively expensive basement, which we were sure we would need later.

As the building season approached, we dove headfirst into obtaining permits, hiring subcontractors, and pricing materials. Once we started, there was no turning back. An architect friend who had recently finished his first house predicted both the humility and the gratification I would encounter during the building process. Some days I would scream, “Who was the idiot who designed this?” only to realize I had. And other times, when a contractor claimed something wasn’t in the plans, I would watch his incredulous face as I pointed to an exact spot on an exact page and declared, “It’s right here.”

In fact, the actual construction of the house has been euphoric. Erik and I stood at either end of our house when it was first staked and tried to imagine the finished product. I e-mailed a picture of the excavated hole in the ground to everyone I knew. The house appeared bigger and then smaller as every new stage was completed. When the roof and windows were put into place, the house became a reality instead of a representation. We began to like what we had created.

I had been a teaching assistant for architectural theory in school, and as the house began to take shape, I revisited the process. I imagined design theory to be somewhat intuitive and innate in my house design. But was I doing thoughtful design, or merely retrofitting more intellectual ideas to things I had done for purely pragmatic reasons? Was our house superior to a house that a non-architect could have imagined? Had we compromised so much that we had sacrificed the character of the house?

I remembered one of Deborah Berke’s lectures, in which she described a house she had designed for some friends on a very limited budget. She said, “Ordinary elements, when used in repetition, can become beautiful.” Our long string of standard windows encircling the house under the eaves was evidence in my mind that this was true. I recalled another professor’s insistence on the logic of window placement and noticed what a pleasing composition ours made on the east side of the house. Another professor’s idea of exaggerating elements to create a focused hierarchy of scale rang in my head as my gaze was drawn upward toward the light at the top of our tall, narrow living room.

I may not have designed a masterpiece worthy of a graduate thesis at an Ivy League institution, but I have created a home. I’ve realized that the purpose of architecture school is to push you and stretch you and force you to try new things. Then, with this knowledge, you become qualified to pick and choose from those things to create actual living spaces. Maybe the word “masterpiece” should be reserved for buildings like the Sydney Opera House, Gaudi’s Sagrada Familia, or the Guggenheim in Bilbao. In our house, I feel I have reconciled my urban modernist aesthetic with a challenging budget in a suburban context. I am proud of the risks I took, and hold my breath as the rest goes up. I have created a house exhibiting warmth, efficiency, and delight, in which we will love to say, “We’re home.” H

Gretchen Wagner received her Masters Degree from the Yale School of Architecture in 1998 and is currently practicing with McLaughlin & Associates in Ketchum. She would love to design your dream house.




This article appears in the Fall 2001 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.