Irene and I currently live in a modest 3 bedroom ranch that I bought in 1980. At the time, I thought I'd live there a few years, build up some equity and then move on. It isn't a bad house. It's in a good neighborhood. It has a good sized yard with some nice sized walnut trees (courtesy of the squirrels). Most importantly, it was and is convenient to where I work. My current morning commute is five miles in the direction opposite to that which everyone else is going.

The house is a basic 3 bedroom, 2 bath, attached 2 car garage, full basement ranch of about 1250 square feet. There is a good sized kitchen, the living room and dining room are combined, there's a fireplace and a big set of windows (16 feet wide by 6 feet tall) looking out onto the back yard. The roof has been redone, the water heater has been replaced, and I updated to a high efficiency furnace when I added air conditioning a few years ago. The mortgage was paid off in 1989.

I was a bachelor when I moved in, and there was plenty of room. I had an office, a workshop, room for a huge stereo, everything a guy could want. Irene moved in 1990, but for the first few years she traveled a lot for her job and was home weekends and maybe ten weeks in a year. But over the years, things have changed. We got real furniture, a bird (MacDuff, AKA "Birgie"), three vehicles (a pickup, Irene's car, and a Miata), and in general just more stuff. There have also been some lifestyle changes. We cook more, we have eighteen people over for the holidays. Gradually the house has just become, well, small.

It became apparent that we needed to move. Our options, then, were to buy an existing house, or to build. Buying would get us more square feet, but not necessarily solve our problems. Older homes were either too small or too expensive in our area. Newer homes, even the McMansions, were geared to the mass market, i.e. family room, four or more small bedrooms, etc.

We're just not the typical family spec houses are built for. We don't have kids. We cook a lot. We have thousands of books and hundreds of CDs. Three vehicles. We don't need a family room. We really only need one bedroom. If we have more, they'll be used as an office or a guest bedroom for a guest we might have once every few years. What we do need is a real working kitchen, a dining room that can seat Irene's entire family, eighteen or so if everybody shows up, a living room that can seat six or eight people comfortably, a three car garage, and a real library, that is a room to store books and to read.

So our options became clear. We need to build a house designed for us. A house that we can spend the next 25 years in. And this leads us to our story.


A few years ago I decided to get serious about woodworking. In the process, I began reading a lot about furniture styles. One of things that I found was that I really liked the furniture from the early 1900's built by Stickley and others. It just looked right to me. It was not too fancy or ornate, it looked solid, and the lines were clean. I began making a few pieces of furniture in this style, meanwhile reading more and more about the style.

Naturally, this lead to the type of houses that would have had this style of furniture, bungalows, arts and crafts, and prairie styles. The more I saw of these styles, the more I fell in love with them. The woodwork, the open layout, the details.

Having grown up in Racine and living in Madison, it's hard to not feel the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. The prairie style is a natural for this part of the country and I had seen plenty of examples, both small and grand.

As Irene and I started talking about what we wanted in our new house I would show her pictures. To my delight, she, too, came to appreciate this style.

So we decided that our new house would be some sort of prairie, arts and craft, bungalow type of building. All we have to do is work out the details.

The Land

We started looking for a lot to build on last year. Our ideal lot would be a sizeable lot with trees in a quiet established neighborhood. One thing we didn't want was a lot that would force us to build right on top of our neighbors. It's surprising how many $350-$400K houses are being built with no yard to speak of and with only a dozen or so feet between houses.

About the only lots available in Madison itself are small lots in subdivisions springing up in former corn fields. Neither of us felt this was appealing. We did look at lots out in the country. There are some that are available in this area that were an acre or more and in our price range, but building out in the country you have to deal with wells and septic systems and limited utilities (no cable or natural gas). Our commutes would have been extended quite a bit as well.

I had noticed an add in the real estate section of the paper which mentioned "prestigious, mature, large wooded lots, fully improved lots with sewer and full utilities" in McFarland. What particularly caught my attention was the words "use your own builder." Much of the available land around Madison is owned by developer/builders who want you to use their company. None of them built houses that we wanted to buy.

McFarland is a small community on the S.E. of Madison. While I live in Madison, I actually have worked in McFarland for many years. Irene had worked at the same place as well for about fifteen years before moving to her current job. What was puzzling was that neither of us could figure out where these lots could be. There just didn't seem to be anyplace we could remember in the village that fit the description.

Anyway, on a nice, sunny Sunday in early March we took a ride in the Miata to scout out possible lots. We found a few places with lots, quite a few with new houses already on them. We were about to give up when we saw a sign for the developer who had placed the add. Sure enough, there was the development, 28 lots heavily wooded with oak trees, some as big as 36" in diameter and 60' tall, and just a few blocks from the town hall in the middle of McFarland. It was actually only a little over a mile from where I worked.

We grabbed one of the maps from the box by the sign and started looking over the lots. They were laid out on a loop of a road that went up to the top of the hill and came back down. They ranged from about 13,000 sq. ft. to 22,000 sq. ft. and from $80K to $120K in price. The cheapest ones were just about in our price range. Basically, the higher on the hill and the more trees, the more expensive the lots. Only three of the lots had houses on them, and the map indicated that about half of the lots were still available.

We drove around the loop several times, getting out to look around at the lots that we could afford. We kept coming back to a corner lot, one of only four, that was right at the entrance to the development.

The lot, being right at the base of the hill was mostly flat, rising just a bit to the back corner. It wasn't rectangular, with one the side by the road going off at an angle, so that the rear lot line was about 35' longer than the front. It was about 14,500 sq. ft. and just on the upper edge of our price range. Only the front 2/3rds was wooded with one monster oak right in the middle.

The ground was still muddy, so we walked up and down the road in front and the one on the side trying to figure just where the boundaries were. We also talked about where the house would go, how many trees we could save, and so on. One of the things about a corner lot is that we could place the garage on the side street so that it wouldn't be visible from the front.

We left saying that it looked promising, but that we should check out a some other possibilities before deciding. We went back the next weekend to check it out again, and decided to contact the developer.

The developer, who's office was only a few blocks from where I worked, was helpful, but not overly anxious to sell. We were given a packet of information including a plot of the trees and a copy of the covenants restricting what could be built. One of the things that did impress us was that the developer really wanted to save as many trees as possible.

After agonizing about it, and worrying that someone would buy it out from under us, we dickered, and made an offer which was accepted. Finally on May 23, we closed on the lot and it was ours.


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