Saturday, July 22, 2006

Mansions on the hill and whatnot

So we went down yesterday and signed yet another stack of paperwork about the new house. VA loan application and agreements for this and that, pages upon pages. And since we were down in Temple again to do the paperwork, we drove out to the development there that has the model of home we're building, to take a second look around at things we needed to consider when buying furniture and all that. The size of the various rooms, the arrangement of doors, the entryway space, the windows and their orientations-- we looked at it all, as well as the luxurious size of the hot water heater and the air conditioning unit.

Danielle Bean, of course, has a thread on her blog about people and the sizes of houses that they live in. There's lots of diversity-- big houses, small houses, people extolling space and people extolling smallness. Of course the usual thread of mixed feelings those sorts of topics generate-- people being people, and sinners all of us.

We've lived in a lot of houses-- in my lifetime, I've lived in at least thirty different homes. I'd have to sit down and count, but at least thirty. Probably more. We moved a lot. I've lived in Oregon, California, Arizona, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, and Indiana. I've lived in everything from trailer homes to apartments to big haunted farmhouses in the country.

Some of the houses were really nice-- the one with the great swimming pool, the one on the Oregon mountainside. Some of them were pretty cruddy-- the tiny and poorly insulated house in Indiana, the miniature apartment in the bad neighborhood in Waco. Most of them had at least one huge drawback, and almost all of the floorplans were terrible. Our Colorado ranch house was small and the basement smelled like sewage. Our house in San Antonio had no closet space to speak of. There hasn't been one "perfect" house, nor have we ever had the luxury of time and financial freedom to select a rental house that we actually liked. We always moved fast, and moved broke.

Our current home is about 1600 square feet. It's proportioned badly, in an antiquated ranch style. The kitchen is shut off from the living room by folding doors. The dining room is shut off from the kitchen and the living room by doors. The living room has one entire corner wasted with a crumbling brick fireplace (which, in Texas, is about as useless as a snowblower.) The entry way is stepped up from the living room and has a strange half wall in the middle. The master bedroom has a tiny cell-like shower, no bathtub, and the sink is in the room itself.

Into this mismanaged square footage, we've attempted to shove a family of six, including one relentlessly antisocial teenager, one mentally handicapped child, and two kids who need to be able to get away from their siblings from time to time in order to retain sanity. It's pretty much impossible in the space we have. The teenager lives in the dining room. The living room has our entertainment cabinet, the toy train table, my chaise, and the dining room table and chairs. We're lucky we don't have any furniture, because that takes up all the available space. The kids's desk is shoved into the entry way near the parrot's cage. Elsa's room is taken up by four bookshelves and the antique bedroom set that my great grandmother left for her. The jungle room is stuffed full with the dresser, the bongo drums we've owned for a decade, the two twin beds, and the broken-down old wicker couch (which is piled with stuffed animals.)

And, since there is simply no space anywhere else, we have my computer desk in our master bedroom along with our bed and dresser and one of the remaining bookshelves. There's a bookshelf shoved in the hall, as well, and one crammed next to the garage door. The rabbit has to live in the garage, there's simply no space for him in the house.

The way the house is set up now doesn't, as you'd suspect, bring us closer together. Instead, cramped and unable to find private space, we all retreat to various corners to try to escape the omnipresent company. We're introverts, most of us, trapped in a small crowded house. Without space to spread out and find our niche, we're unhappy.

The new house will be almost twice as large as our current home. But really, the big difference will be the WAY in which it is set up. You see, I thought a lot about the way we live before we decided to buy a new home. There are some aspects which I simply had to have in a house. One of them, well, the primary consideration was actually not the square footage. You want to know what it was? I'll tell you-- it was a modern-style kitchen and family room, set up for the needs of a modern family.

I hate cooking alone. I despise it-- spending hours trapped in a small space while everyone else is in another part of the house. I feel put-upon and miserable. Most houses we've lived in have those awful overhanging cabinets that cut the kitchen off from the rest of the dining room or breakfast area. I hate that. I want to be able to talk to people while I cook or while they cook, to be able to see what the kids are doing instead of shouting through the house.

The great thing about our new house is that its setup solves this problem. There is a huge combined kitchen and family room with a breakfast nook and a curved island with a bar in the middle. The television can be on for the kids, they can be watching it, and I can keep an eye on them. If they're playing a video game, I can watch, comment, and make suggestions. If they have homework to do, they can sit at the bar and work on it while I chop vegetables and stir sauces. If they want to have a snack after school, they can sit at the bar and watch tv without having to take their KoolAid on the carpet.

And now, of course, with wireless internet, I can sit in the same room with them while I am surfing the Net or doing my homework. And if I need more privacy, I can move to a desk in the living room or I can move upstairs to my room.

The toys will hopefully remain upstairs in the game room, which will be set up for toy storage, easy cleanup, and the larger baby gear. Mere will probably have her computer set up in the gameroom, in order to keep her out of the noisiest part of the house but still in a "common area." This should solve some of her bad habit of moving from the kitchen to get a snack back to her computer-- if she has to go up and down a flight of stairs, it makes it less appealing to her. She doesn't much enjoy stairs.

Everyone will have a private space-- I can hide in the nursery with the baby to nurse and cuddle without kids blaring the tv and asking me pointless questions (My favorite is the shouted "Is the baby asleep?" . . . well he or she WAS until you yelled, doofus!) Elsa can hide in her room with a book or her laptop, far away from her younger siblings. The Little Guy can go to the Jungle Room and relax with his toy cars or move from gameroom to family room as the mood takes him. Tony can turn the living room into his relaxation spot or go lounge in our spacious (and computer and television free) bedroom. Mere can choose a stimulus level that she can tolerate-- if it's too intense in the family area, she can go decompress on her computer.

And really, it will be wonderful to have the space we need for once. This floorplan has closets galore-- no more piling things in corners because there simply is no space for them anywhere else. I am overjoyed at the thought of having all that space. It gives us room to breathe and grow, room to have some privacy and relaxation, room for our house to be less cluttered and claustrophobic. Room to put the Hoover in a closet instead of sticking it in a corner. Room to stop shoving the boxed cereal on top of the fridge. Room to move Elsa's dresser out of her closet.

There is just a certain minimal amount of stuff that you need with six (going on seven) people in one house. There has to be room to store clothes and shoes, backpacks and books. We're a literate family, we own thousands of books-- there has to be space for bookshelves or built-ins. Children, even older children, have toys that need storing. If you're buying groceries for even a week with seven people, you will need cabinet space in abundance-- cans of tomatoes and beans take up a surprising amount of shelf space, leaving nowhere to stow the cereal and the syrup. People need a place to SIT, something we don't even have right now. There's space for two people to sit on my chaise, to watch a movie together right now, everyone else has to sit on the floor.

You can make do without these things-- trust me, we have and we do. We've lived crammed cheek-to-jaw at various times. Our vacations in our travel trailer are exercises in microscopic life-- you learn tricks for storage and maximizing space.

It is a wonderful luxury, though, to be able to anticipate life being different. To anticipate being able to cook a meal in the kitchen, with the baby safely stowed in a swing or in a playpen which isn't stuffed into some corner, and being able to keep an eye on the big kids as well. To anticipate having a bathroom which can fit a mom lounging in a bubblebath, a baby cooing in an Exersaucer, and a husband shaving at the sink all at the same time. And that's not even considering the benefits of owning our own actual backyard-- being able to put in a garden, to plant whatever flowerbeds I like, and to build an aviary for the long-suffering parrot.

Do we need a "McMansion?" Well, no. We don't need a mansion, but we're not building one. We're building a house for seven people who live a certain lifestyle. Even with all the improvements and upgrades, we're still spending only about $60 a square foot to build this home-- it's no mansion. Don't look for marble countertops and $5000 stoves in this place. Elsa's big excitement is that the stove is a flat-surface stove-- no more scrubbing stove trays!

No one knows what the future holds for them. Our future is no different-- we anticipate living in this house for at least three years. At which point, we could have a twenty-two year old, a sixteen year old, a fourteen year old handicapped child, an eleven year old, and a three year old. And who knows, maybe another baby or two-- it's within the realm of possibility. I think the house is flexible enough to accomodate those changes. I think the way it's set up will allow us to have some valuable family time when we're stretched by our competing demands of work and school. I can see living in this house for years beyond that, if we chose. We probably won't-- we would like to move somewhere cooler, once I have my BSN and some work experience. But it's a house that we could live in if we had to, for many years to come, a house that will adapt as our family changes with time. With five bedrooms, there are many possible combinations, no matter what ages and stages of children we have to accomodate. Some combinations simply don't work, as we found out with the teenager who was keeping his kindergartener brother up late at night, letting him watch inappropriate movies and video games. Nightmares from watching midnight horror flicks are not something you want to deal with in a six year old.

I'm looking forward to our new home.