Saturday, May 22, 2010


I thought I'd take a break for one post from talking about the architecture of the house to give an update on the push towards construction, especially regarding how money has been influencing this process.

I met with my builder last weekend to go over her new cost estimate, which was revised to reflect the more detailed drawing set I gave her. There was good news and bad news. The good news was that my first choice for window and door type is about the same cost as my second and third choices. So I get the windows I want. The bad news is that the total revised cost increased to an amount significantly beyond my financial ability. So we talked for a little while about ways to reduce this cost back to what I can get a loan for. Then my builder made a selfless, and ridiculous, suggestion: that I work as the general contractor for the project. With her fee out of the estimate, along with the cost reductions we talked about, the project would likely be back in my budget. She said that she just wants to see this house built, even if it means losing her paying job on the project.

That's encouraging on several levels, of course. I told her I appreciate the gesture... and that it's clear she has more confidence in me than I do. Though I've worked as an architect for over eight years, my experience on construction sites is limited, and my experience actually managing a construction project is nil. The idea of being my own general contractor for this house had crossed my mind before - and flew right back out because of this complete lack of experience. Not to mention the apparent impossibility of doing this while working a full-time job. At this point was thinking: the project's way over budget and the only way to change that is to do something I have no experience with and no time for.

So I left that meeting and immediately... rented a movie. To escape. To relax. To get my mind off this prospect of losing a project I've worked six years on and felt God leading me to do. The movie was "District 9." A fine film, by the way, with a surprisingly touching and hopeful ending. It hit the spot. I was in another world for a while.

But God has a tendency to inhabit even the fantasy worlds to which we escape and use them to teach us something. I finished the movie on one day and the next day started watching the "special features" included on the DVD. In a few statements by Neill Blomkamp, the film's director and co-writer, I heard my lesson. "District 9" was his first feature film, and by the looks of him he is my age at the most. He said that at the start of shooting, "I wondered what the hell I was doing. I was fairly stressed out... I was completely unprepared." Looking back on the whole experience, he said: "I'd do a lot differently. But that's what happens with your first film; you go through an insane learning curve. And you can only go through that curve by being thrown into the meat grinder and coming out on the other side."

I've tried to remind myself often that this is only my first house, and part of the point of the project is to learn and grow as a designer in ways I couldn't otherwise. I thought it would be enough learning for me to watch a design of mine get built, and then live in it. But to actually contract it myself would add a whole other level of learning to the process. That's one steep learning curve, which I would not give myself. Is God giving it to me?

The lesson continued: Blomkamp noted that for this first film of his he "picked something that wasn't conventional, which made things more difficult." Oh, I do know about that! There's not much in my house that IS conventional. And here is his concluding statement: "This was not an easy process. There were lots of stressful moments for me, for sure. You can go through that level of pressure and that level of stress only because you're asking yourself, Is this good? Am I making something worthwhile?" I recognize this question; it has haunted the back of my mind ever since the first ideas for this house entered the front of my mind, and no doubt will only increase in volume as I proceed. But I have been diligent over the years to dig it out, lay it on my desk and stare it down. The answer has always been "Yes." And I don't think I spoke it.

I like to break apart the word "encourage" to make it "en-courage," because it suggests a process by which courage is inserted into something. Hearing the words from this young director on the other side of his first film filled me with courage. I had prayed for this, for God to give me courage to do this work, whatever it takes to do what he considers good, worthwhile. He's answered this prayer in several ways; the movie was one. Recently while driving to work I felt a sense of courage to get started with this house as the contractor - as if courage was just dropped into me. I haven't felt that before. Suddenly I'm just ready to go.

It is significant that all these potential changes I have to be en-couraged about were brought on by the limits of my budget. If I contract the house myself it will only be because I can't afford to pay a contractor to do it. But as I look back it seems that God has already used the limitations of my budget to guide the project in a number of other ways.

The first time this happened was over a year ago. I finished the design and felt quite strongly that it was what God wanted. Then I got the estimate back, and it was about twice as much as I could afford. That was too much of a difference to just change some materials or details; the whole design had to change. After a period of discouragement, I started to work again, and over the next few months redesigned the house to be almost 900 square feet less than the original, from 2,250 to 1,380. But here's the best part: the new design is better. It is simpler. It is more unified. It is more sensible. It even feels humble. I had to admit that the limits of my budget led to not just a smaller and cheaper house, but to a better house overall.

Another way this project seems to be turning out better because of budget limitations is its location. The site I ended up purchasing for this house was not my first choice. My first choice was in downtown Wilmington. I made an offer on a property there but the owner refused to budge on the listed price, which was too expensive for me. So I started looking again and found a property in a smaller nearby town, a 10-minute drive from downtown Wilmington, in an older suburban neighborhood. I don't like the suburbs. But I could afford it.

Since purchasing this lot I've learned some interesting things about the suburbs. Just in the last few years America's population crossed a major threshold: more people now live in cities than in the suburbs. For several decades prior to this, the majority of the population lived in suburbs. Something else I learned, which comes with this population shift, is that the suburbs appear to be on a path towards becoming the new slums. The population shift to cities is raising prices there and driving poorer populations to the suburbs. This got me thinking about this location I have been forced upon by my lack of funds - where I want to build a house of worship and life. Perhaps God is building lanterns in places where the sun is setting.

As often as I've wished I had more money to spend to build the ideas I fall in love with first, I have to remember that God has been faithful to take what I have and guide the project - and not merely to be a smaller version of my idea, but to be a better version entirely. This is humbling. According to the examples I've shared here, it appears that if I had more money this house would be less about the Kingdom and more about me. And even with my intentions at their best, I can't decide for God which exact design and location will do his work best, especially regarding the future. So, through a glass darkly, and with way too little experience, onward I go.

1 comment:

  1. I am thanking God daily for his involvement and guidance in this project!!
    He will be there beside you in every step...just remember to ask for his "consultation"!