“Well,” said the architect, “for $110 a square foot, you might be able to do something pre-fabricated and bring it in.” I did the math in my head. The $200,000 we had budgeted to build our ski town house in Telluride, Colo., evidently would buy us a trailer home. And if we wanted a real house? Well, the architect said, projects in nearby Mountain Village run about $450 a square foot. For our modest home-which could be no larger than 1,825 square feet, due to the size of our town lot-that worked out to $821,250. Ouch.
It all started simply enough. We had a piece of land, a little money and a love of mountains. But as we began the magical, life-changing experience of building a home in a ski town, I felt we were taking part in a play entitled Soak The Newcomer.
ACT IIn Which Much Rain Doth Fall, And The Plans Do Cause Much Mirth
After I’d threatened the building inspector with the empty bluster required by the traditional Get Your Building Permit dance, we had the necessary approvals only two months later than promised. Our new architect was sure we could build for a mere $150 per square foot. By now, that sounded like a real deal.
As the 1999 summer festival season began, columbines bloomed and kids on skateboards clattered down our street, we met Billy, our contractor, who perpetually appears as if he has been roused from bed by a house fire. He wore a T-shirt that read, “Yes, But In The Morning I’ll Be Sober.” Unlike some of the other builders in town, he did not drive a new Audi station wagon with the company name embossed on the door. His ride was a Nixon-era Ford pickup that looked like it had been beaten with chains. Somehow, we knew we had hired the right man.
We came to call our house-to-be The Boat, because it was a dry-docked version of a yacht: A hole in the ground into which we poured money. Because we were building in a National Historic District, we adhered to strict rules. Our house could only be so tall, so wide, so long and so big. The dreaded Historic Architectural Review Committee had to approve everything about it, right down to the exterior paint color.
As the crew got to work, we rented a house nearby from Lito Tejada-Flores, the renowned ski instructor and author. “Don’t ever think that your house will be finished,” Lito warned. “That’s something that came out of the post-war, prefab house industry. Houses are organic. They’re never finished.”
Living close to The Boat had its drawbacks. Each morning, while paragliders dropped from the sky and banjo players tuned up in the nearby park, we listened with faintly pained expressions to the beep-beep-beeping of heavy equipment that seemed to roam aimlessly. It was the sound of money, our money, moving the same dirt back and forth at $75 an hour.
Ned, the foreman, was always in a good mood, happy to see us. Who wouldn’t be, pulling down $300 a day? The dog and I went to see Ned one morning when yet another trench was being dug. It seemed we had every utility installed except a subway line. “How many more trenches do we need?” I asked, trying not to grit my teeth. “Oh, I don’t know,” Ned said with the air of a man who has to make a payment on his water-ski boat. So the machines kept digging until, I suppose, the boat, the new skis, the new trailer and the truck to tow it were paid off.
As the crew prepared to pour the foundation, Telluride’s heavens opened. For weeks, thunderstorms arrived for morning coffee and stayed through cocktail hour. Rivers flooded. Wildflowers rioted. We wondered if The Boat might become an ark. Ned sat in the rain and spent a lot of time staring at the dozen pages of laminated plans, which the four-member crew referred to as “the funny papers,” because some of the architect’s ideas struck them as ludicrous. Our roof had them stumped. It was the architect’s indulgence, a swirl of oblique intersecting angles and complex gables.
One autumn morning our dog patrolled for unattended donuts while Ned contemplated the plans as if they were the Lost Scrolls. Snow clouds appeared above the exposed rafters and I was thinking about tuning my skis when Billy appeared with a dirty, laminated piece of paper. It was one of the pages from the plans. “I found this in the neighbor’s shrubbery,” Billy said. “I don’t know if it makes any difference.”
“Oh, I wondered where that went,” Ned replied. “It disappeared a month ago. Maybe I should keep it.” He returned to his Talmudic study of the architect’s hieroglyphics. In the far corner of what would someday be a bedroom, the dog raised his leg.By the time the chairlifts were running, the first act was finished: The Boat was closed in, a plywood and Tyvek skin around its wooden ribs, the roof angles all tight and flush. I didn’t dare check to see if what they had built matched the plans.
ACT IIIn Which A Different Rain Falleth
The Swashbuckling Plumber was a fine fellow, always hale and hearty, showing up with a red bandanna tied over his head and a twinkle in his eye, looking like a young Erroll Flynn carrying elbow joints. We liked The Swashbuckling Plumber, but we began to worry when we noticed that the hot and cold water in the bathroom had been hooked up backwards. Soon the Swashbuckler left on other business, to be replaced by a new pipe man almost every week.
We moved in as another summer concert season was getting underway. Although accompanied by Our Lady of The Perpetual Punch List, we were the proud owners of a roof over our heads and running water. But we were only halfway home. Indeed, the water ran in ways unexpected.
That first week my wife went upstairs to christen the master tub-a tub the size of a stock tank. Afterward, as she was brushing her hair, she heard rain begin to fall. She discovered that it was falling through the dining room ceiling, pitter-pattering out of the light fixtures, dripping down the insides of the windows, bulging the drywall. One of the numberless plumbers, it seems, had not seen fit to connect the bathtub drain to the drain pipe.
We got a new ceiling put in and paid our daily respects to Our Lady of the P.P.L. When autumn passed again and skiing beckoned once more, we turned on the in-floor radiant heat. It was a Goldilocks experience. Some rooms were too hot, some rooms were too cold. The Cadre of Plumbers marched through, rubbing their chins and making worried noises, their radios crackling, butt cracks showing. For weeks, blowtorches were flourished, butterfly and ball valves displayed, dissected and reinstalled with much discussion.
One January morning a member of the Plumbing Platoon fell on the ice outside our house. This Prince of Pipes knocked himself cold, came to, wobbled inside and began soldering. We wondered if plumbers always worked in this frame of mind.
ACT IIIIn Which the Windows Bring Much Woe
We had great mountain views as spring edged up the valley, but we peered at them through cracked windows. As they were being transported to Telluride’s 8,700-foot elevation, air trapped inside the windows by plugged vent tubes expanded. Those that hadn’t cracked were bulging crazily, big cartoony windows trying to climb out of their frames. They all had to be replaced.
Epilogue As the third Telluride summer concert season got underway, the last item on Our Lady of the P.P.L. was completed: our third dining room ceiling (getting a new one had become an annual event). “Finished,” I thought. “Finished!”
In the end, The Boat had cost us a lot more than $150 a square-but a lot less than $450. It was lovely, it was home, and it was done. Outside, hummingbirds buzzed, and I could smell steak on a neighbor’s grill. Then I heard my wife calling from upstairs, saying something about a stuck door. In that moment I knew Lito was right; we would never be done.