Saturday, January 29, 2011

2. The Design

One of the primary requirements for this house is that it needs to be nearly maintenance-free. I'm already 61 years old, and I don't see myself up on a ladder 20 years from now re-roofing, or touching up fancy detail woodwork. I've always been drawn to European architecture, but the level of detail can be very costly to build, and high-maintenance later on. So, I came up with what I call "Modern Bavarian" - a style which attempts to maintain the basic European shapes, while doing away with half-timbering or fancy filigree detail common in Alpine architecture. Materials would be stone, stucco, and a slate roof. With almost no wood, the exterior should be fireproof and extremely low-maintenance.

I had actually come up with this style about 30 years ago. I was going to use it for the additions to my house in California, including the interior furnishings. The best example was an aquarium I built of oak which contained all the styling elements I was going for: a steep roof, tall windows with octagon-shaped tops, and an indented base. I couldn't wait to apply this style to the new house.

So I set about drawing up the house plans, first with sketches, then on the computer. At first I used inexpensive architectural software by Better Homes and Gardens, but after a few months I switched to the semi-pro version by the same developers, Chief Architect. While great fun to use, home-design software can often be infuriating. You can spend hours creating a section, only to have it inexplicably disappear. My only advice is save, save, save. One of the neatest things about these home-design programs is the ability to see a 3D-view from any angle. Here are a couple of early renderings from different angles:

I spent about a year designing the house on the computer, then contracted with a licensed Oregon architect to bring my design up to Oregon code. I also needed an engineering firm to work out some of the structural challenges. My design was rather complex, and after two more years, the architect still had not been able to finalize the plans, especially the way the roofs would flow together. I decided that the only way to properly convey my ideas was to build a model. I had built several architectural models before, including a couple of very detailed ones with landscaping and interior lights.  This time, all I needed was a quick-and-dirty model of balsa wood to get the basic point across. Well, that took a month, but was MORE than worth it. After I presented the model to the architect and engineers, they quickly had the plans done and submitted to the County. Over the next couple of years, each major contractor would take the model home for a few days to familiarize himself with the design.  I can't count how many arguments were solved by simply referring to the model.

The basement would contain the gameroom, gym and theater. The main level would consist of the living room, library, dining room, kitchen, pantry, bathroom, laundry, storage room, and garage. The upper level would be comprised of three bedrooms and baths, and offices for my wife and myself. The highest point is a castle tower with a cupola on the top.

I built each floor of the model directly on a copy of the plans for that floor, so the scale is the same as the plans -  1/4-inch = 1 foot.  Each level pops off to expose the lower floors. I then mounted the whole thing in a base of styrofoam which I carved to approximate the contour around the house.

This is probably as good a time as any to mention the number-one cost-saving item in building a house: LABOR. If there's anything you can do yourself, do it yourself. I know that some of these tasks may seem intimidating at first, especially in this age of specialization, but most of them really aren't that hard.  After a couple of days at painting or plumbing or installing drywall, you'll seem like an expert to a casual observer, and your friends will be in awe of you.  The most important thing is Divide and Conquer. Can you plumb a house? No? It takes a couple of minutes to learn how to drill a hole in a stud, run some PEX tubing through it, and squeeze on a connector. Do that enough times and you've plumbed a house.

It would have cost several thousand dollars to have someone else build this model.  My cost? About $20 worth of materials. Balsa wood is easily cut with an Xacto knife, and Super Glue bonds the walls to the floor almost instantly. Yes, it took a month to build, but here's the most important thing I've learned about time in my old age: After about 30 days, that month would be gone whether or not I had a model to show for it. I could be watching TV at night, or I could be working on the model. Usually, I was doing both.  :)


  1. My projects have been miniscule by comparison with yours. But throughout my life I have always been a big believer in doing it yourself wherever you possibly can! - With some basic knowledge and a generous helping of common sense, I found that jobs like plumbing and electrical work are a piece of cake. It also helped that my father was a joiner and builder, so woodworking skills were second nature to me. My occupation as an engineering draughtsman also helped with any design and planning stages.

    Attempting a vast project on the scale of your Oregon Castle though, leaves me in complete awe! - I have attempted most things in the past 50+ years of my life, but so far I've stopped short of castle building! :)

  2. Ha, ha - One of my earliest pieces of artwork on the Amiga.

  3. It’s admirable that you are proving you are wiser at your age now. When planning the design of a house, it is essential to consider the things that aren’t superficial. It matters that the house looks pleasant on the outside, but its composition is far more important. I hope you were able to attain the low-maintenance and fireproof house you want. :)

  4. Looks amazing you are very talented!

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  6. Please post the finished product! I am looking forward to building one myself in the future :)

  7. Still not done, but I'll have an update soon.

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