Foundation for the Future | Life in the Kingdom

The Hewitt family embarks on a new kind of building project.

By Ben Hewitt

Aug 21 2019


Illustration by Doug Chayka

It has been a dry summer, and although northern Vermont has been spared the worst of the rainless days gripping the region, we’ve been living for months on the cusp of drought. By early August, even my body feels dry, as if it were a garden in need of frequent watering, or even the occasional relief of a passing shower. So I dive into our pond over and over and over again, grateful that the springs feeding it are prolific and cold; even under the relentless sun, the water level has dropped only a handful of inches, and although the top few feet of water are warm, the depths remain breathtakingly cold. 

We have decided, perhaps more impulsively than might be prudent, to build a second house on this property. This, despite the fact that the first house we built—the one we currently inhabit—remains unfinished: Thekitchen is but a crude assemblage of makeshift counters, the northwesterly-facingexterior walls remain unsided, and the bathroom patiently awaits a sink of its very own. It seems reasonable to think we might finish this house before starting another, an assumption that is not lost on our friends. “Has anyone ever told you you’re crazy?” a friend says to me when I tell her of our plans. She’s smiling when she says it, but it’s not entirely clear that she’s joking.

Illustration by Doug Chayka

There are a number of reasons we’re embarking on this project, all of which are informed by the awakening understanding that at some point in the not-so-distant future, we might do well to have an income stream that is not dependent on our bodies, nor on the fickle nature of the market for written words. To be sure, both of these have kept us afloat over the years, aided and abetted by our penchant for thrift and (I suppose) a certain prideful recalcitrance: We’ll do it our way. But time marches on, and new aches and pains settle in, and maybe one begins to consider ways in which the burdens of life might be eased by steady income, even something as modest as a monthly rent check. Besides, if there’s one thing we know how to do, it’s building on the cheap, leveraging used materials, lumber sawn from logs harvested on this land, and our still-capable bodies.

So it begins. We hire our neighbor Matt to dig a cellar hole. Matt lives a few miles down the road, and spends his days either working in the woods or running the excavator. It’s not an easy way to make a living, but Matt is perennially cheerful, in that way of people who seem to have figured out their place in the world. We hire Levi to come with his portable mill and saw the piles of spruce and fir logs I’ve harvested over the winter and spring into 2-by-6s for wall framing. And we hire our friend Mark to help with the framing.We hire Perry and Sons to pour the foundation; they come and are gone so quickly it seems almost like a mirage, except that what remains is literally as solid as concrete.

Meanwhile,Penny and I scour Craigslist and we take a trip to the North Shore of Massachusetts, where we purchase 18 used Marvin windows, a set of French doors, a gas range, a large built-in cabinet, two light fixtures, and probably a few other things I’m forgetting, all for $2,500 cash. The materials are out of a huge waterfront mansion that was purchased by investors to be gutted and flipped at a substantial profit. “It was perfectly fine the way it was,” the crew foreman tells us, shaking his head in disbelief. “But a house like this, people want everything new, and they’re willing to pay for it.” He helps us load, then offers us three interior doors and a wood stove for free. The stove looks as if it’s never been used.

We drive back through Boston at the height of rush hour, towing our unregistered (but don’t worry, Mom, still perfectly safe!) trailer behind our rusty Ford pickup, me at the wheel, anxious as a long-tailed cat in a roomful of rockers, since it’s one thing to be towing an 18-foot trailer piled high with a menagerie of building materials, and it’s entirelyanother thing to be towing the same through the late-afternoonmelee of Interstate 93 on a workday, sweat beading on my brow, one eye on the truck’s northward-creeping temperature gauge, one eye glued to the brake lights of the car in front of us, and both eyes casting frequent glances at the rearview mirror, where, no matter how often or vividly I imagine it splayed across the road, our load remains secure.

Penny, meanwhile, is cucumber-cool. “We’ll either make it or we won’t” is how she replies to my frequent (incessant?) comments pertaining to the truck’s engine temperature, or the risk inherent in the heavy traffic, or even the (moderately) illegal nature of our unregistered (but still perfectly safe!) trailer. Naturally, her composure serves only to agitate me further, and I believe it is no exaggeration to suggest that the five-hour trip shaves at least some period of time from my life. On the other hand, compared with buying new windows, doors, light fixtures, cabinets, and stoves, we’ve saved somewhere in the neighborhood of $15,000. All in all, it is a deal I can live with, particularly after determining that whatever days/weeks/month/years the stress has cleaved from my personal allotment, they would have come at the end, when my quality of life would likely be diminished anyway.

In August, a few days after the foundation is poured, Mark and I begin framing the floor system. We’ve designed a modest structure, barely 1,000 square feet, and a roof before winter seems an entirely reasonable goal, even for two men who are committed to working barely 40 hours a week between them. This is to be the third house I’ve built, or at least had a significant hand in building, but only the first that I am not destined to live in, and also the first with no specific move-in date, and thus no pressing deadline. I am enjoying our relaxed approach.

Slowly, the house takes shape: The floor is framed and decked, the first wall goes up, then the second and third. We set the rafters, then sheathe the roof. The near-drought persists, and thanks to the perpetually sunny skies, we make quick progress despite our short days. For me, the short days are a necessity, in deference to the paying work that is making this project possible in the first place, plus the innumerable homestead tasks that loom in the final approach to winter. For Mark, the short days acknowledge there is firewood to cut and stack, gardens to tend, cars to repair, and his own house to finish. Like me and Penny, Mark and his wife have built their house around them; it’s been 25 years since they broke ground, and he jokes that it might be finished in another 25.

Toward the end of September, the rain comes again.The house is not yet closed in, and our progress slows. I’m still optimistic that we’ll have it dried in before winter, but that’s only because I have no way of knowing that the first snowstorm will arrive in early November, and that we won’t see bare ground again until the end of April. The snow will bury the pile of roofing I’ve thoughtfully purchased in advance; it will cover the roof deck and make access to the job site challenging. Mostly, though, it will fracture our resolve with its promise of frigid toes and half-frozen fingers, and of hours spent sweeping and shoveling.

But in September, with the leaves on the trees just beginning their annual turn, we know nothing of this, and in our ignorance of what the future holds, Mark and I keep plodding away, joking and laughing through a handful of six-hour workdays each week. As if winter will never come. As if we have all the time in the world.