Thursday, February 23, 2012

So what's the perfect house?

When I ask myself what I want my house to be like--if I could have the perfect home for living in Fairbanks--there are a number of different qualities and a lot of factors to take in.

I think the first and most important, for both me and Shane, is that it have a large kitchen. One of our problems with the current place is that it's just laid out very poorly. There's not enough room for two people to comfortably be standing in there, let alone be working at the same time. Besides being half broken (the drawers are no longer on runners, it's just wood scraping against wood so everything in the cabinet beneath a given drawer has bits of wood in it) and extremely (I cannot emphasize that enough) ugly, the cabinets are also poorly designed. Many of the shelves aren't tall enough, so things like olive oil and vinegar sit on the counter because there's nowhere to put them. (Except, perhaps, in the liquor cabinet, but I'm too short to comfortably reach up there every time I want oil and vinegar.) We have cabinets in the corners that are quite deep, but the doors are so small, and it's so dark in the back, that you can't use most of the space. We have literally lost things back there because we couldn't see them. Something like a lazy susan would be excellent, but even then there's not enough space to put one in. We have an entire drawer which we can't use because it was put in before the dishwasher was, and the dishwasher sticks out too far so the drawer does nothing more than move an inch before bumping the dishwasher. Two of the major appliances in there (dishwasher and oven) are old and horridly inefficient. There are more problems, but you get the idea. For two people who love to cook, and who spend as much time in the kitchen as Shane and I do, it's a major grievance.

The next major thing on my list is wood floors. I hate carpeting. It off-gases chemicals (like those wonderful flame retardants) and traps allergens, so the argument can be made that they're just generally bad for you. But beyond that, the most compelling argument for me, is that they're also very hard to clean. They stain easily, and it's actually a lot of work to take care of them. (Think of the hours of your life spent vacuuming, and trying to get every little crevice and nook. *Shudder*) I much prefer sweeping and even mopping to vacuuming and using a rug shampooer. Plus, the broom and mop don't scare my pets. :) If you think the cleaning issue is small, guess again. As I'm rather fond of telling people, there are babies and lots of pets in my future. Both of those things are incredibly messy and prone to creating sticky, staining messes that are hard to clean. Given the choice between a wood floor with a rug which can be rolled up and moved to safer areas, or wall-to-wall carpeting, which one do you think would be easier? Carpets need to be replaced every so often, too, because they start to show the wear and tear and all of their stains. It's not like this process happens slowly, either. The carpet in our apartment was new when we moved in (if I'd found the place before, I would have told our landlord just to leave the old carpet) but it doesn't look like it despite our best efforts to keep it fairly clean. From my experience with wood floors, depending on how well you take care of them, the type of wood, and where in the house they are (cork might be better in the kitchen) they need to be replaced, oh, every hundred years or so.

If at all possible, I'd like my future house to be oriented either South or North to take advantage of natural light, with big (triple-paned!) windows on the South-facing side and much smaller ones to the North. It drives me nuts how many houses around here aren't situated to take advantage of any natural light, or which (like our apartment) have large windows on the North side and smaller ones on the South side. It's stupid. When we get so little natural light in the wintertime as it is, we need to take the fullest advantage of it. (In the summer, the sun circles the sky so it doesn't really matter what direction your house faces.) I realize that around here you're losing massive amounts of heat from pretty much any window, but less so from South-facing ones and the offsets (like natural light and, thus, a reduction of electricity used for lighting) are worth it. Since I'm planning to have thick curtains (or even window quilts) on all of my windows, the heat loss will be minimized when the sun is not up.

Plus, South-facing windows means more good places to put my plants and a bigger indoor garden. If there's not enough space on the windowsills, I'm going to make little shelves to hold plants. I already have the design in my head.

The next is to have at least a backup of wood heat. I don't know that I want my house entirely heated with wood because I know that at times, around here, that can be cold and seem almost foolish. (When it gets to -50 or -60, homes with wood heat will sometimes get close to freezing because it's so difficult to heat that much space with just one wood stove.) But a wood stove in the wintertime means that heating oil is reduced, and we can have greater efficiency with certain things--for instance, to heat up water I would just constantly keep a kettle on the stove, rather than plugging in our electric one. Why not use that heat source for other things which need heat? Some things which need to be cooked slowly could also be cooked on top of the wood stove in a dutch oven. (Although I'm not sure about that--it would be an experiment.) I know from J's parents' wood stove that it certainly does a good job of heating up things placed on top of it so I don't see why that wouldn't work. Not only would it reduce our dependence on heating oil, it would also reduce our dependence on coal-fired electricity. In the summer, of course, it would be more efficient to go back to the electric kettle and such, but this would be a huge boost for the winter.

I want our place to be close to town still. In fact, if we could find this paragon of a house in our current neighborhood I'd find a way to make the financing work right now, somehow. We're close enough to friends and the University and the grocery stores to mostly ditch our vehicle, especially in the summertime. Why would I want to give that up? Living in the hills, where it tends to be a lot warmer, would have some increased efficiency such as not having to heat our home as much. And that really can't be discounted here. But I think that all of that efficiency would be erased because we would end up relying on a car so much more. I know myself, and even in the summertime I'm not going to want to bike 15 miles just to go to the grocery store.

A composting toilet would be a really nice thing to have. When I first heard about them, and the concept of "humanure", the guy profiled in the article had just a bucket he did his business in, then threw a bunch of wood chips on top to keep the smell down. (He insisted that there wasn't any.) I thought, well now. That's taking things a bit too far. And that's coming from someone who lived with an outhouse for six months. (I'd rather have the outhouse again, to be honest.) But a real, actual composting toilet is nothing like that. Depending on which model you get, they can apparently use either little or no water, don't smell, and create rich fertilizers and compost. (That part I have no problem with, but you might. However, if the thought of eating food grown from that compost skeeves you out, you can always just grow flowers with it.)

As long as I'm dreaming, I'll add solar or some other renewable energy source on here. I realize that solar power has a lot of problems (such as the minerals and metals it uses, the inefficiency, and all of the problems of Alaska not having sunlight in the winter) but it's a helluva lot better than the coal power I'm currently relying on.

I want to have an arctic entry. I honestly don't see why every house around here doesn't have one of these. They help to keep your home warm and more efficient because all of the hot air doesn't go rushing out as soon as you open the door. It also gives a space for you to take off all of your gear and to store it. The best one I saw (oddly enough, in a rental cabin and not a house) had a bench around it with open space underneath to store shoes and boots, pegs for coats, and a shelf for helmets, hats, and other things that you'd want to keep handy for the outdoors. Since I saw that one, I've been dreaming of having an arctic entry just like it.

Some of these things, obviously, would be relatively easy to change after we buy a house (like the floors or the toilet). Other things (like the orientation and what area) are things that we'll have to watch for carefully when we're looking at buying a home. The last thing we'll need to look closely at is the price, since neither of us wants to be beholden to the bank for the rest of our lives where our home is concerned. As you might have noticed over the last few years, that's worked out very poorly for a lot of people.
I'm sure that there are plenty of things that I'm leaving out here, but my perfect dream house is quite efficient and suits me. Did you know that the average stay in a "dream" home is only about 7 years? People buy their "dream" house, fix it up, get bored with it, and move on to something newer and better. I'm not like that. When I buy a house, I want to stay in it for a long time, so I want to make it perfect for me.

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