Life as a House

Life as a House

An English professor becomes the first in the known history of his family to build a house and changes the meaning of his life.

This is the story of an English professor, the ultimate in "those who can't, teach," gaining creative control over a crucial area of life from which most of us are alienated (hence all the plumber jokes). Choosing not to entrust his fate to a slumping profession, he teaches himself to become a carpenter, and then a designer and builder, to become the first in the known history of his white collar family to build a house. LIFE AS A HOUSE tells the stories of a lifetime of extraordinary involvement with houses—the author's life as a house—from his childhood home in Westchester County, Thoreau's cabin on Walden Pond, an early inspiration, to the old fixer-upper in Hartford on which he cut his teeth as a carpenter, and the cutting-edge solar house in rural Connecticut which he designed and built from scratch (staying, barely, one step ahead of his ragtag crew by reading a book on construction). There are chapters on houses in the resort town of Wellfleet on Cape Cod, the San Francisco Bay Area, the south of France, the Sierra Nevada, and on a Caribbean island.

LIFE AS A HOUSE is about childhood's strange combination of profound intimacy with and alienation from the parental house. It about how it feels to tear down a wall—wondering if it's holding anything up. About the adventure of making a hole in the roof in order to install a skylight, or framing the first wall in a hitherto pristine rural setting. There is even what may be the most complete description in literature of what it feels like to fall off a ladder.

This is no how-to—you couldn't build a house (or even a birdhouse) from this book—but you learn enough about what it's like to think and feel like a designer and builder in the various stages of planning and construction that you might want to try it yourself. The book is about the human factors, including unplanned parenthood, job insecurity, and the price of home heating fuel, that influence the evolution of a house design; about how houses end up looking and feeling and functioning as they do. You learn why it feels like the most important thing in the world to install a window of just this sort and these dimensions just here in a wall, instead of somewhere else. It is about caring about how things come out—and the frustration that can result from caring. LIFE AS A HOUSE will enrich your appreciation of all that goes into the design and construction of a house. You will never feel the same about the roof over your head.

Like Thoreau's Walden or Pirsig's modern classic, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, LIFE AS A HOUSE transcends the memoir genre by weaving into the narrative explorations of relevant issues, themes, controversies both heavy and light:

  • class struggle between homeowners and tradesmen (or why the plumber won't ever call back)
  • how is it that aesthetic appeal in architecture predates by millennia the architecture profession?
  • is building a house too hard? (and what could that question possibly mean?)
  • creativity vs. bottomline in building a house to sell
  • how design solutions become problems which generate solutions (or how painting yourself into a corner can be a good thing)
  • trees vs. houses in the era of over-development
  • pros and cons of literary influence on readers' lives
  • what's more satisfying, building a house or writing a book about building a house?

At the deepest level LIFE AS A HOUSE is a story about how the creative impulse organizes and gives meaning to life, with all the pleasures and inconveniences thereof. It is a story of the creative life.


Life as a House
1. Temple Place
My Father's Castle and Thoreau's Cabin

Growing up in a commuter town north of New York City, the author is deeply influenced, as a child is, by his childhood house (even while at times seeming bent on its destruction). He is influenced as well by the role the house plays in his parents' "life of quiet desperation," in Thoreau's famous condemnation. Reading Walden in college provides the inspirational insight that, as all birds build nests, anyone can—and ought to—build a house. Even someone from a family in whose known history no one had ever done such a thing before. Far from being the Sisyphean burden it seemed for his parents, a dwelling should be a source of creative meaning and delight.

2. Bay Area
The Cherishing of Rented Spaces

Thoreau's inspiration notwithstanding, the author pursues the professional career track. This is the 'sixties-flavored story of his desultory, nearly decade-long drift through Stanford University's Ph.D. program, during which he lavishes passive, tool-less tenant-style fondness for -count 'em-14 different cottages, one a few feet from a cliff overlooking the Pacific.

3. Sherman Street

Feeling a deep need, both economic and emotional, to put down roots on moving to Hartford for his second teaching appointment, the young professor takes the plunge and buys his first house. Exorcising the ghosts in this gloomy 1890's handyman's special becomes the occasion of his becoming a self-taught carpenter, designer, and remodeller.

4. Quarry Road
Re-inventing the House

With a little help from his friends and a how-to book, the author builds his first house, an ambitious solar spec house. In the process he learns something of the division of labor, the frustrations and considerable satisfactions of this basic human undertaking; and some of the contradictions between business and creativity in designing and building a house to sell.

5. Old Long Pond Road
Transcending Thoreau

In Wellfleet, on Cape Cod, the author and his wife build a second home. A satisfyingly efficient cottage, in the mode of Thoreau's Walden cabin, it fails to anticipate the advent of a child and fulltime move from Hartford to Wellfleet. How the cottage is adapted to new needs and how the new design provides the template for yet another Wellfleet house built 15 years later.

6. Old Long Pond Road
The French Correction

A 20-house development threatens to spoil the author's remote location in the Wellfleet woods. He and his wife respond with the tallest fence in town and a European-influenced formal garden.

7. Sherman Street
Landlord Follies

Out of economic necessity but also out of the simple logic of seeing a large house well-used, for over 20 years the author rents space he remodelled in his Hartford house. This chapter tells the stories—the satisfactions and dissatisfactions—of this indirect consequence of his work as a designer and builder.

8. Esperanza
The Exposed and the Sheltered

The romance of the tropics is about a climate so perfect not even clothes are needed, let alone shelter. But the logical culmination of the author's life-long version of this romance is the purchase, with two friends, of a very solid, concrete house on the island of Vieques, off Puerto Rico. A story about how the romance is tempered, in some ways contradicted, by home ownership.

9. Old Long Pond Road
The Case for Destroying Bird Habitat in Wellfleet

How a night spent under a newly-framed roof becomes the key idea of a building designed and constructed 20 years later. Subplot: trees vs. houses in the era of overdevelopment.

10. Coldstream Canyon
Dream Houses

A long-contemplated, oft-designed cabin in a beloved setting in the Sierra Nevada mountains—and how it worked out that the author never built it. The enduring lure of Thoreau's cabin: one man building at his leisure a cabin in the wild.