Guiding principle --a working class aesthetic
About a dozen times a day, when I'm working on my house plan or just thinking about it, I have to decide if the particular detail I'm considering should be modest or fancy. In almost every case, I choose modest. This is in keeping with the overall "working class aesthetic" that I'm going for. For me, calling something "working class" means that it's functional enough to do the job, simple enough that it can be built efficiently, and small enough that it doesn't do more than it has to . When in doubt, I ask myself, what would my great grandparents do?
I never really knew my great grandparents. I have one memory of my mother's mother's mother, and all that memory is is I remember what she looked like. But I know what type of people they were. They were working class. They were poor, but they worked hard and had enough to get by. My great grandmother, Bertha, who I remember, came over on a ship from Belgium when she was 8. Her family had been turnip farmers.
When I'm making a decision, a lot of times I'll step back and think, what would Bertha do? Like the extra gables on my roof. Man, I loved those gables, they looked cool. But I can just imagine what Bertha would think. "It's so much more work and money to do that, can't you just use a normal roof?" After looking at it that way, I ditched the gables. Working class people, when they're building a house, they don't want to blow their money on extravagant details they don't need. That's why you rarely see old cabins or shacks with fancy roofs. That's a lot more work to be fancy. All I would have gotten out of my fancy gables would be occasional compliments ("neat roof").
It's not easy, finding the right balance between spending more on something or making do with less. If it was easy the world would be a better place (I'm assuming more people would choose to spend less on stuff if they only knew they could be happy with less stuff).*
Another example: at times I wanted a fancy woodburning stove. If Bertha were around, I could have showed her how much it would cost, and she would have put her foot down. Too much! There has to be a simpler and cheaper way to heat the house.
I'm not advocating doing everything bare bones. If you have to, you have to, but it's hard to love a house that's completely utilitarian. For me, it's a matter of choosing what I want to splurge on. Queen size bed? Hardwood floors? A woodstove? A washing machine? A twenty-four foot trailer instead of a twenty? A nice kitchen sink or a cheap one? Granite or formica counters? Finding the right balance is the key. Even Bertha had a few nice things in her house, I'm sure. And who knows, if I can save enough money by simplifying elsewhere, maybe she'll even let me have my woodstove.
* I think part of the difficulty is where we're coming from as a society. We have a consumption based economy, so there are a lot of
economic forces people pushing us to buy solutions to our problems rather than solving them ourselves. Remember what the government claimed would solve the last economic crisis? People needed to get out and spend more money! Forget the lack of jobs, if people spent more money, businesses would make more money and hire more people. Consumer spending was the key to growth. Never mind that people weren't spending because they didn't have money, they could use credit, and when the economy was back on track, they could get a job and pay off that debt. It's a cruel cycle, work so you can spend more money so you have to work more so you can spend more money.... Reminds me of a brillaint SNL sketch from a couple years back. Oh yeah, here it is. (For when this link breaks, the skit had Steve Martin, Amy Poehler and Chris Parnell, and was called, "Don't Buy Stuff".)
Don't get me wrong, I'm not anti-capitalism or anti-industrialization, I love the many parts of the modern world that wouldn't exist without them (smartphones FTW). But I also think that consumerism has gone a little too far, is unsustainable, and a DIY pushback is necessary to help re-balance the economy.