Why Build?

Written By: E. Sayre  De Castro

Why Build? We did everything in threes. Talked to three architects. Interviewed three builders. Researched three approaches to building a house. And yes, during the building went through three sets of plumbers. The only choice we did not make was the water front location. Our first task was stabilization of the bluff, and a fluke visit to the Montauk Lighthouse Museum provided a solution. There we learned about Georgiana Reid’s lighthouse saving reed-trench method. We followed her How to Hold Up a Bank like it was our bible, enlisting friends along the way. It took five years and 10,000 beach grass sets. Later, our next door neighbor’s trees slide down the bluff in a heavy rain while our terraced rise covered with a field of shimmering beach grass remained intact. We were ready to build. By the time we started thinking about a home on the bluff, we accumulated significant but not relevant experience with homes from the late 1920’s like my grandfather’s creaky Montgomery Ward kit home in the village. For that old place with tiny closets and percussive radiators, we became adept at fixing things and compromising 21st century convenience for 20th century charm. After paging through house plans, we began discussions with architects. The first in khakis and a comfortable sweater greeted us warmly in his white office, and pulled out a portfolio of 5,000 plus sq. ft. white trimmed shingled affairs, with a style that held DNA back to the classic Hampton’s shingled estate but now seem as common as a Levittown ranch. “Nothing under a million” they declared as I struggled to find a way to end our conversation and leave. The second was a city based up-and-coming firm furthering the hip modernist box. We detail our needs to the charismatic designer, and right in front of us, a home is sketched out of space and an idea. It was nice. It was jazzy. We felt this home could be a collaborative affair between what the architect wanted and what we needed. However, five years of terracing taught us we had to build to respect the elements and withstand wind. That is how we met Mike. A friend had mentioned a new type of home construction technique called integrated concrete forms (ICF). The system consists of Lego-like foam blocks filled with concrete. It was like pouring your house instead of using hammer and nails. The foam-sheathed cement forms a very strong structural unit with incredible insulating properties. The clincher was a photo from the ICF manufacturer of a Corpus Christi site after a hurricane. Only one beachfront house was not leveled to the ground into a pile of broken sticks. Mike knew ICF, and we found his small mid-island office piled with drawings, simple but functional furniture, and the appearance of a low overhead operation. This architect also wore khakis but sported informal button-down shirts. He listened carefully to our descriptions and was pragmatic – quickly pointing out my third floor widows-walk would not meet budget. Much to our dismay, however, his first effort captured the three bedrooms and open floor plan, but pushed these into a 3,000 sq. ft. behemoth. Visions of laying prostrate for the architectural review board variance flashed in my mind. We said “smaller.” He comes back with a 1,800 sq. ft. box, no views of the water except for one room, and we almost said “bigger,” but my wife had the insight of adding wings to the box and everything clicked into place. Two thousand sq. ft. seemed like Goldilocks’ “just right” with water views for all. Finding a builder is a bit like dating. You want to show off your good side, that you are financially secure, and hope to find someone to share your dream. The builder is thinking one night stand. He is undoubtedly wondering about his exit plan. Once mankind learned to build shelter for others in exchange for payment, the second oldest profession was born. The first builder we interviewed show us high end 13,000 sq. ft. constructions and even one with a hidden tunnel between garage apartment and main house. This thin grizzled guy spoke with an Eastern European accent and by just listening to him we felt he would pull the fingernails out of any subcontractor that did not deliver on time. Our second was tall and walked with authority, brimming with confidence as he spoke. He showed me a weed-filled 8,000k sq. ft. ICF place down island on the gold coast that was halted after the walls and roof went up: former Lehman Brothers owner. There was only one that answered our pass-fail question correctly: would you pour cement if it dropped under 32oF? This stocky man was the one our architect called in if a project went wrong and needed a fix it guy. Didn’t have glitz and seemed matter-of-fact could get the job done. His bid is in the middle and we go with him. He tells us this is a simple six to nine month project When it comes to trust, there are two approaches. Either extend trust until it’s proven otherwise, or do not trust until it can be built. Our jobs precluded us being on a construction site seven days a week. We decided to trust but verify and our architect suggested a contractual arrangement for payments. Clear the land and dig a hole, get paid when the architect’s guy confirms it’s done. Complete the cement foundation and walls, get paid. Put in the windows. Get paid, and etcetera on through what seems like a systematic, orderly, step by step schedule. With all due respect to our friends below the Mason-Dixon Line, how do you know your relationship with the builder has gone south? Building a house is like a team event, except normally you would expect each team to help the project to completion. The actual sport seems to be how much of your job you can pass on to the next guy in the construction chain. This is where we became stressed trying to figure out what was going on. Each team would complain bitterly about what the other team did not finish, and then stop short on their own job, like poorly cutting the cavity for light switches so the electrician is struggling to get the cover plate to fit. When the architect said “pay” it was actually more a euphemism that the segment was complete. The Shakespearean conflict grew between the rationality of the plan and the irrationality of man; the illogic of man; and the ego of man all fighting the plan. That erosion of trust is like rust building on a metal pipe. At first you do not notice when the confident and smiling builder says there was a small cost overrun for the stucco. Or the angry first plumber calls you at home and says the builder stiffed him out of payment. And the builder says the plumber didn’t get the job done and he needs to hire a second one. But you already paid off the plumbing when the architect’s email said “pay.” And just like that metal pipe, the horror you feel upon discovering it really is entirely rusted and useless matches your anger at paying for materials that never arrive. In the end, the builder half-heartedly puts in about four hours a week on finishing tasks and does not answer calls. The moment he installs the large front door I let him know we are done. That is, done with him. My wife and I start on-the-job training as general contractors and with the help of a carpenter friend, muscle down, spend more money, work weekends and vacations, and move the project to an approved Certificate of Occupancy after 20 months. Throughout it all I could gaze out to sea. I saw ospreys, bay men plying the waters, white caps followed by mornings when the bay is a glassy mirror reflecting the sky above. One day, being covered in dust from our finishing work, and without running water, we don our bathing suits and go down to Little Peconic Bay. It’s a perfectly still September afternoon. Warm but a hint of fall’s coolness, setting sun infusing the light with a luscious golden tint, and we are the only ones in the water. I see Holmes Hill in the distance. For the first time in what feels like forever, we play. I remember why we put ourselves through so much to get here. There is a serenity that comes with living at a place that shows you the Earth at every turn, and is not simply an intermediate holding place until you get somewhere else. Here among the water and land is a feeling that leads to peace and balance. To be at a place were the past and future are so completely mixed that there is only now. We’re home.