Our builder pulled the permit for construction on our home the first week of July 2020, and it took almost a full year to receive our certificate of occupancy. It was a long year.
We knew going in that this would be a long process given the challenges of coastal construction, like fabricating and installing the concrete pilings that keep the house high above potential storm surge. And we knew that construction in a rural area could make scheduling trades more difficult. But the pandemic brought the normal and expected construction delays to a whole new level.
First was all the back orders. A partial list of our items that had pandemic-related delays, back orders, and shortages: windows, lumber, siding, flooring, appliances, kitchen cabinets, propane tank, shower doors, the door for the screened porch, and the weed barrier under our gravel. For health and safety reasons, our builder never mixed trades (electricians, plumbers, etc.) on site. If the HVAC person was working, no one else would be working, which meant that the schedule inevitably extended each time a particular trade had a delay. Then there was the time we were in the middle of getting insulation sprayed in — with plastic taped over all the interior surfaces except the walls and ceiling — and the insulation guy came down with Covid-19 and was out for several weeks, bringing all activity to a halt until he recovered and could finish the job. All these delays meant that a construction project we expected to take 6-9 months ended up taking nearly 12.
The long construction period really drug out at the end, since we were living on site in the Airstream starting at the beginning of February. Being on the island and on our own property was better than being at the same private RV park where we languished throughout 2020, but being surrounded by construction workers and construction commotion for months made the long process seem utterly endless.
To sum up, most construction projects involve delays, frustration, bad news, cost overruns, and logistical challenges, and the pandemic only made every single one of those things worse. The good news is that it’s finally done*, we can legally live in the house, and we are thrilled with the final product.
*Well, sort of. No house is ever completely done, but right now our remaining projects — such as landscaping, mounting the guest bedroom TV on the wall, etc. — are home improvement projects we can handle ourselves.
Now how ’bout some photos:
A few comments about some of the choices we made:
- There is no drywall in this house — completely a matter of personal preference, and one major reason we felt we would end up being happier with the final product if we built new rather than renovating an existing home. Ripping out an entire house full of perfectly functional drywall would be an unnecessary expense.
- Although our square footage is fairly modest (1,233 sq ft under air) we think the very open floor plan, vaulted ceilings, and 9 foot ceilings in the bedrooms make the place feel quite a bit larger. Raising ceilings is another thing that would be fairly difficult / expensive in a renovation.
- Another choice that we thinks helps the place seem spacious is the decision not to install upper cabinets in the kitchen. We prefer having room for art, and with cabinets on both sides of our mega-gigantic island we have more than enough storage for all our kitchen items and other household supplies.
- We have windows in every single room, in most cases on two different walls. We wanted to maximize ventilation during the majority of the year when we don’t need to use our A/C. This does cut down on available space for art, however.
- Our screened porch wraps around four large sets of sliding glass doors. The goal is to open those big sliders during nice weather and turn the screened porch into extra living space. I think we learned this trick from turning our RV campsites into outdoor living space.
- We really love the dual situation on our lot. The north side of the house faces a stand of trees and shrubs filled with birds and other wildlife, while the south side faces toward the water (we are four houses in from the Gulf). So different windows provide totally different views.
- Our entire first floor including the carport area is designed to be storm-surge-friendly. Everything downstairs can get wet (there are no finished areas) and we have plenty of gaps in the “walls” around our shower and storage area for water to flow through. We consider this a must for living on a barrier island, even though I see new homes being built in our area with finished on-grade foyers with interior stairs and even elevators.
- Being aware of the vulnerability of living on a barrier island during an era of visible climate change, we leaned into our pre-existing preference for efficient use of resources. Bonus: we also save money. While not obvious in the photos, things like our spray-in foam insulation, 100% LED lights, and efficient appliances have kept our electric bills quite reasonable during the hot Florida summer. Our low-flow shower heads and faucets and water-saving toilets have given us water bills that are, anecdotally, some of the lowest on the island.
Here are some more photos of the details that we particularly like:
Goodbye, Storage Unit!
Finishing the house meant we were able to head down to South Florida in May and retrieve the items from our small (5×5) storage unit. A visit to South Florida, of course, means a visit with family. It was truly wonderful to spend time with my mom and other family, indoors, without masks. Hooray for vaccination! In between catching up with loved ones, we had a full schedule of home improvement projects at my mom’s place, clearing our storage unit and closing out that account, packing up items we stored with my mom, and carefully positioning everything in a small UHaul trailer for the trip to the new house.
What we kept in storage: kitchen equipment that was too large for RV living, books, artwork, and personal mementos like photos and scrapbooks. Happily, after three years of not seeing our art, we still like the pieces quite well and we are slowly figuring out where to place things in the new house.
What we did not keep in storage: furniture. And I am very glad we went that route. Furniture would have required a much larger (and more expensive) storage unit, and I doubt we would have ended up keeping the furniture anyway. When we hit the road, we had no idea when or where we would land permanently or what type of residence that might be. Anything from a downtown apartment to a rural homestead was possible, with the potential of wildly different environments. In all likelihood, any furniture we kept in storage wouldn’t fit in a new place, for reasons of size or style. Our friends at IKEA make it possible to furnish the new house at a fairly modest cost, and while in South Florida we made yet another buying trip to fill in some gaps with items that were finally back in stock after pandemic-related backorders.
Reflections on the Process
In prior posts I have chronicled some of the challenges we dealt with throughout the construction process, including excessive amounts of decision-making and paralysis by analysis. We expected a lot of this going in, and even knowing what would be involved in the process — and having been “trained” through two years of continuous RV travel — we still ran out of gas at the end. (Says a person who opted not to install porch fans because she can’t stand the thought of wading through all the options again.) If I never look at Wayfair again, my life will be good.
But for us, the results are completely worth the temporary pain and suffering of the process. We loved working with a small builder (who got behind and overbooked at times) because we were able to be so involved in the build on everything from framing to trusses to interior paint. Since we were staying locally throughout the process, and actually living on site for the last third, it was easy for us to make quick decisions when needed. We didn’t have to squint at blurry phone photos from the builder to make decisions on things like the style of trim on windows and doors or the depth of the bathtub. We also have a real appreciation for all the details that went into building the house, as well as about 10,000 photos that document the construction process. Ultimately, what matters is that we ended up a with a house that reflects our own preferences far more perfectly than anything we saw when we started house hunting in this area, even when allowing for a large renovation budget. We are well aware that not everyone shares our taste — we only wanted a 2 bedroom/2 bath, we hate drywall, and we love industrial style, for example — and the key benefit of building from scratch is that we were able to include all the functional and design elements that we valued most.
Since we didn’t know how quickly we could get vaccinated, or when the house construction would be done, we didn’t make any travel plans for this summer. As it turns out, it’s a good thing we weren’t planning to pull out in May since we were still in construction well into June. Instead, we signed up for some interesting citizen science projects that I’ve written about in my last few posts. We’ve also been working steadily on house projects, getting to know the area a little better, and staying alert for everything from hurricanes to more virus variants. And we’ve already started making travel plans for 2022. The house is great, but summer in Florida is not. Stay tuned!