John and Nikki Preston’s first conversation was about the sort of house they might build together. They were at a party at the home of a mutual friend, just up the hill from where they now live with their daughter Eileen and two Labrador retrievers.
It’s no coincidence, then, that they built their own home together, using materials they each owned before they met.
Getting to where they live now is no easy task. It’s not the sort of place you stumble upon without directions. Out past the old veteran’s hospital you turn off the main road, bear left at one fork, right at another, then turn again across from a row of mailboxes. You get the idea. The narrow gravel road eventually winds its way past an old farmhouse and pasture, up through a young deciduous forest, bits of sunlight slipping through the ever-thinning canopy of a late-fall afternoon.
The house they eventually built together is a simple, gabled affair, perched on a small footprint at the end of a logging road that affords them maybe 700 square feet of living space. The land it occupies, a little more than an acre, is surrounded by forested land that’s protected from development by neighborhood agreements and conservation easements. It was sold to them by a family member as a wedding present for the same price that it was purchased some 20 years before. John, a contract archaeologist, and Nikki, who raises their daughter and works part-time overseeing a nonprofit research project, didn’t have deep pockets. “One of the ways you can really save money is if you can find a piece of property that someone will let you pay on, which is what this is,” John says.
They had hoped to take advantage of some of the many green technologies available, but found it was not in their budget. Instead, they concentrated on good design and planning, and they did a lot of the work themselves. John stood as his own general contractor and Nikki, after passing a test with the county, did all of the electrical work in the house. They also benefited from collections of building materials they each gathered over the years, long before they met. Their kitchen sink was salvaged from a university laboratory; the slate on the bathroom floor was purchased from the Salvation Army; the interior walnut and oak trim was a gift from John’s retiring high school shop teacher; an old wall cabinet Nikki’s grandfather built hangs above the low-flow toilet; the windows and doors were purchased from a building surplus store in Athens, Georgia where Nikki grew up.
But in a 700 square foot space, how does one build the illusion of more capacity? Window placement is critical to living in a small space because, as John says, “You’re truly trying to bring the outdoors in and vice versa, so you get the feel of a larger place.” Nikki adds that “in designing a small place, we wanted to make sure that there was an exit in and out of every room so you never felt like you were doing the shuffle with someone coming in and out.”
The result is a sort of an oblong floor plan with the living room on one end, the master (only) bedroom on the other, and the kitchen and bathroom in the middle.
Living in such tight quarters creates some real obstacles, despite the Preston’s investment in conscious design. “We could have had more efficient use of space,” Nikki admits as she glances at two-year-old Eileen, clutching one of her dolls. “Could have had an extra room.”
The other thing about small spaces is that they can’t be rearranged very much. “It’s like living on a boat, and you don’t bring anything into a boat that you don’t need,” John says. They have eight towels, and use vacuum bags to store seasonal items.
What’s unlike living on a boat, fortunately, is that it’s easy to debark this vessel. When asked what they do when John is between contracts, and it’s been raining for two or three days, Nikki points out the window. “We go outside,” she says. “You can walk in the rain. You can bundle up and stay warm.” Additionally, there is the unconditioned ground floor where John can go and work on the old Triumph GT3 he’s in the process of restoring, though he admits the space may one day have to be more family friendly. For now, “He’s got downstairs,” she says, referring to his man-cave, “and town is only 15 minutes away.”
Before I leave, they tell me that attending a green-building seminar at a home show was one of the more beneficial things they did in preparation for construction. There they heard a local builder give a lecture on “cultivating the coincidence,” the idea that somebody out there has exactly what you need, and that you only need to put the word out there to benefit. Call it intentional, target-specific networking.
During construction, Nikki’s father had a passing conversation with a casual acquaintance. He said his daughter was building a house and was doing all the wiring herself. The friend said he was an electrician, and that he knew of a bunch of lights that were being replaced, that were in excellent condition. Those fixtures now shed light on John and Nikki’s deck and driveway.
“If you don’t ask, you never know what somebody might have,” Nikki says. Including shared dreams, I think to myself, remembering their first conversation, and the house they built together, and turned into a home.
— John Piper Watters is a father, artist and freelance writer with a day job living and working in the Asheville area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org