June 20, 2018: After 30 years living in the country, I began to think about moving to town. Like many people nearing retirement, I was looking for a way to simplify my life and reduce the daily chores and maintenance demands of owning a large house and grounds. Putting down new roots in a friendly place where I could walk to the library and meet people at the coffee shop sounded good. For me, that friendly place is Spring Green, Wisconsin.
My heart was set on a contemporary, net-zero house—a house that didn’t yet exist. Finding a suitable lot took several years and an evolution in thinking. I envisioned my smallish, modest home tucked along a tree-lined street, in an older neighborhood close to the activity downtown. It would be similar in size to nearby houses, with their quirky arrangement of old garages and tool-sheds that created private little backyards and cozy gardens. Out front—a sidewalk, with people passing by.
One lot slipped through my fingers because I wavered. Another lot befell a similar, more complicated fate. I kept biking around and around the neighborhoods, looking for some “lost” parcel. The only listings were on the fringes, out in the bleak and bland subdivisions. Or so they looked to me.
One day I stopped and had a good look around. Big, boxy homes, check. Vinyl siding and faux stone, check. Overly large lots with no trees, check. Wide streets and large front-facing garages, check. No sidewalks, check.
But then there was one. Maybe I could make it work. It was a 20 minute walk from the coffee shop. Nearby woods and an open field beyond made it feel like country. No trees on the lot meant more solar heat gain and sunshine for a vegetable garden. I could plant a windbreak along the west edge. If I turned the house 90 degrees, I gained some privacy while still putting on a neighborly face.
Like many subdivisions, there were covenants. There were two that rubbed the wrong way. The developer required that any plan include an attached two-car garage and that any one-story house be at least 1500 square feet. My plan was only 1000 square feet, with a semi-attached one-car garage.
I noticed that around the corner was row of smaller-looking houses on smaller-looking lots. I found out the size restriction for those lots was just 1200 square feet. So in my offer to purchase, I included a drawing showing a 1200 square foot house with a semi-attached two car-garage, facing away from the street. My Realtor later said she’d expected some pushback.
Here’s a preliminary plan of how I’ll arrange the house on the lot, and how I’ll use landscape to enhance energy-efficiency. A mixed, densely planted windbreak (ideally planted on a low berm), protects the house from winter winds and driving rains bearing down from the northwest. A retaining wall surrounds the vegetable garden and raises it up to the level of the house for easy access. The rest of the yard follows natural grade, directing storm-water runoff to a rain garden where it can slowly recharge the aquifer. Out front, prairie grasses make way for no-mow or low-mow grass in a nod to suburbia. Deciduous shade trees placed along the east and west provide cooling breezes without blocking sunshine to the large windows facing south and the PV array on the south roof. If possible, I’ll lay pavers or pour a permeable driveway instead of the concrete driveway required under the covenants. Permeable concrete is made from gravel and cement only—the sand component of conventional concrete is eliminated—so that rainwater flows into the surface instead of sheeting off the surface. In this way, the aquifer is recharged and pollutants from car oil, etc have a chance to decompose instead of polluting surface water.
While my smallish, contemporary house might look like a duck out of water next to it’s more conventional neighbors, my hope is that it also looks like it makes sense. My plan is to break ground in September 2018, or if that’s rushing it, then May 2019. I hope you’ll continue to follow my progress!