House Plans

One of the benefits of walking (as opposed to running, which my husband does and I might do if my arthritic knees would permit it) is that I am able to observe changes in the neighborhood. Someone has planted new flowers or is adding a fence. Someone’s house is being painted or his roof repaired. People move out; other people move in. But one of the things I most enjoy is following the progress of new construction. I’ve always been fascinated by housing construction, dating at least back to age nine when we lived in a new subdivision in Louisville, Kentucky, and a house was going up across the street from us. I loved to watch the carpenters (who used real hammers and hand saws then, not nail guns and circular saws) and other workers as the house took shape.

In my neighborhood, by rights there wouldn’t be any new construction. When we moved here in 1980, there wasn’t, as far as I know, a single vacant lot (except for those next to houses built on a double lot). Recently, however, there has been a massive redevelopment effort. When we moved into our house, previous owners had added onto it several times, and it was probably the largest one on the block. Since then our neighbors on both sides (and others farther down the street in both directions) have essentially doubled their houses with additions. Of the thirteen houses on our block, five have been added onto, but five have been totally demolished (one after it had been added onto) and been replaced by new construction.

Our block is by no means unique in this respect. Our town was founded in 1894 (though there was settlement here earlier than that), and most of the houses in our neighborhood were built in the early to mid-twentieth century, many of them as vacation cottages but most as fairly modest single-story homes on relatively small lots. Now this area, which is on a bluff overlooking Mobile Bay, has become extremely desirable, and people with more dollars than sense are paying half a million dollars or more for these small houses just to tear them down and replace them with two-story houses built as tall and as close to the property lines as the zoning regulations allow.

Many of the houses thus destroyed are no real loss—architecturally undistinguished and with no historical value—but the neighborhood occasionally still gets up in arms about the McMansions that supplant them. To be fair, most of these new homes are quite tasteful; many of them reflect the vernacular architecture (to the extent that there is any) so well that within a few years they appear to have been here forever. Others are monstrosities. But they all intrigue me when they are being built.

As soon as the slab is poured or the foundation built and the walls laid out, I like to explore the new homesite and try to figure out the layout of the planned house. As the framing goes up and plumbing and wiring are added, I get additional clues. Sometimes I’m lucky enough to find actual builder’s plans. But often there are rooms whose purpose remains a mystery. One of the houses on this block has a second-story room with no windows and plumbing for a lavatory but no toilet. So not a bathroom; I wondered if perhaps it was intended as a darkroom. I don’t suppose I’ll ever find out.

My current mystery is a room that contains all the breaker boxes (three) for the house. One might think it would be the utility room, but the connections for the washer and dryer, as well as access to the furnace or heat pump, are in an adjacent room. Possibly the room will be an office or sewing room. If so, I think more than two electrical outlets would be desirable. Or perhaps it will be a pantry or butler’s pantry (it’s near the kitchen). I’m hoping time will ultimately tell. I’ll continue to explore the house (usually on Sunday mornings when work crews are not present) until I can no longer do so (luckily door locks are usually among the last finishing touches on new construction).

I tell myself (as I used to do when I cut out house plans from the Sunday paper) that I am collecting ideas for my dream house. At this point, it’s pretty clear we’ll never move or build, and I’m stuck with the house we’re in (though perhaps we’ll at least get around to some sort of massive renovation), but I still love seeing what people are doing in their new houses. Large bathrooms are currently much in vogue, almost all with a separate shower and whirlpool tub. All the master baths have separate lavatories for Him and Her, but what I liked even better were the entirely separate His and Hers bathrooms in one house built (by a building contractor for himself) several years ago. To me that would be real luxury!

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