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Civilization Watch
First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC
By Orson Scott Card October 1, 2006

The Dream House

My wife and I have always had better taste in houses than we could afford -- but then, who doesn't? Still, we had a dream house in mind, a Queen Anne style frame house with a turret and steep gables, porches all around, clapboard siding, surrounded by old trees. Inside there would be wonderful, one-of-a-kind rooms with amazing little nooks and crannies to thrill the heart of any child, and the eye of anyone who loves proud houses that have secrets.

The day arrived when we realized we could finally afford to build that house.

We had already been through the tumultuous decision not to move closer to my teaching job in Virginia -- we realized, to our surprise, that after twenty-three years even I, the man with the wandering foot, had accidentally put down roots here in Greensboro.

But the house we're in is, well, boring. We like the federal style well enough, but such houses are so ... so rectangular. And brick. Brick is fine. But it's so solid. It really didn't feel like us to us. We've spent fifteen years bumping into the walls of this federal-style brick house, which is missing a couple of rooms that we really need.

Also, this is a house that was built by a local builder that knew how to put up something that looked grand, but didn't care about getting the details right. So there are tiny annoyances, like corners that don't meet right, and sloppy workmanship and faulty planning -- and some that weren't so tiny, like the fact that the house was built on a bog and yet fifteen years later we had to have a drainage system installed around the house so it didn't float and sag and split any more than it already had.

We have gone to a lot of Parade of Homes shows in town, looking for a builder who cares about the details, but we gradually came to realize that most of the builders we saw were best at putting up a house in a hurry, and most of their "nice touches" were whatever had already been a fad in the DC or Atlanta area five years ago. Where was the builder who had his own eye for real grace in a house? More to the point, where was the builder who cared about quality even where people wouldn't notice it till they'd lived in a house for a year or so?

This past summer, we found that builder. His name is Scott Stalker, and his company is Stonefield Homes. We discovered him because we went to visit the new Hartman Farms development on Archergate, which connects Church Street and Yanceyville Road on the other side of Lake Townsend.

There were gorgeous wooded lots, but what took our breath away were the houses. Two builders are partnered in this development, and both do good work, but the one whose houses blew us away was Stonefield Homes. The interiors of the houses were full of light. Transoms over the interior doors had an amazing brightening effect. I looked at precisely the kind of detail work that was sloppily done in our present home, and there were no mistakes. We also looked at a house under construction and saw that nobody was cutting corners, at least not in the ways I've been (sadly) trained to look for. Someone cared.

We picked our lot. We put money down to hold it. My wife went online and found several designs, but there was one that was so close to what we wanted that we could hardly believe it. We bought the full set of plans, and then sat down with Scott Stalker and a designer he often works with, Patricia McLemore of On Eagle's Wings Design and Drafting Services. Scott told us that Patricia was the right designer to help us make the changes we needed in the plans, and he was right.

We talked to them about what each room was for, and what we hoped for. There was an attic space that we wanted to use. We knew that much of it was needed for mechanical things in the house, but we still wanted the space broken up into many levels, to be the ideal play room and sleepover room and pillowfight room. There was a bedroom with a turret -- we wanted the ceiling broken open and a cone-shaped loft space made available, so a hanging chair could dangle in the middle and be our daughter's ideal spot for computer games.

We talked about the movie-viewing space in the basement, the office and library space we need (because books threaten to crowd us out of our present house at any moment). Patricia McLemore caught the vision better than we did ourselves -- what she brought us was better than our dreams.

But a funny thing happened just two days before the meeting where they showed us the plans.

I had caught bacterial pneumonia three weeks earlier, and was still in the realm of the coughing dead. My wife has only finally come back fully from her stress-related heart attack of last fall. I had also just turned fifty-five. Maybe it was the combination of these things, showing us that we were not young anymore. Maybe it was just realizing that we were really going to do this.

But it dawned on both of us, quite separately, that we were about to build the wrong dream house. We were shy about saying it to each other, because up to that moment we had both been so excited. Here's what we realized:

We were preparing to build the house we wish we had raised our children in.

All those marvelous spaces -- how I wish we'd had them when our two oldest were still little. Oh, the memories they would have!

But we didn't have that house then. Instead, we lived in a spacious condo in Guilford Colony that we rented from the most patient and generous landlord in the world. Seven years we were there, when our oldest kids were little. Then we moved to our present house just as they moved into their teens. And this is the only house that our youngest has ever lived in. Most of our older kids' memories, and all of our youngest's, are here.

The new house we were about to build, beautiful as it was, perfect as it was, would not feel like coming home to them when they brought the grandkids to visit us over the years.

More to the point, it wouldn't feel like coming home to us, either. Not really.

Because the house we're in is the one where I can walk into any room and see, in memory, the younger versions of my children. Now our family room is dominated by a big screen tv. But I can walk in there and see the waterbed where our handicapped son used to sleep, and picture our youngest as a three-year-old, bringing books down to sit on the bed beside him and "read" to him.

Our living room has seen fifteen Christmases; our country kitchen has seen fifteen Thanksgivings with various collections of friends and family gathered there.

Our music room (which in other people's houses would have been a dining room) shows me memories of my kids playing the piano, my oldest daughter singing as she first took lessons and realized she was a soprano and could soar, my oldest son playing a favorite song from memory.

In the library (a bedroom where the closets became computer carrels and the floor is covered with islands of bookshelves) -- I can see our oldest son, now a game designer, playing intensely at the newest computer game when he was in high school and all his game-playing was stolen from homework time. I can see our older daughter when she would write scraps of stories and then walk away, stories that were so funny my wife and I would print them out whenever we found them, and read them to each other.

Our new house was going to have a bigger, better version of all these rooms. But there wouldn't be any of the memories in it.

What's the point, at age fifty-five, of taking on a mortgage that won't be paid off till I'm in my eighties, in order to have a house that is beautiful and big but has no memories of when our children were young and still intensely involved in the family's life?

The house we're in is still smaller than we need. There are still little annoyances and some big things that must be changed. So we'll change them.

The house that Patricia planned for us and that Scott Stalker would have made so beautiful and strong -- how I wish it could exist. But Scott will build great houses and Patricia will design wonderful spaces for other people -- and we'll be happy just knowing that there are people who still care about creating homes that are so gracious and sturdy. Someone else will buy that perfect lot in Hartman Farms. (We promise not to drive by and sigh too often.)

We'll keep puttering about in a house that was never what we wanted -- we bought it because it was big enough and it was all we could afford at the time we needed it. But it's the house where our third child lived the last nine years of his life, where our grown-up children lived when they started dating and went to proms, where our youngest has spent her entire life. When they come visit us, they'll be coming home.

That's a kind of dream house, too, isn't it?

Scott Stalker, Stonefield Homes
5574-D Garden Village Way, Suite 100
Greensboro NC 27410

Patricia McLemore, On Eagle's Wings: Design and Drafting Services, Custom Homes, Additions, Remodeling, Interior Details
4904 Golden Acres Rd.
Oak Ridge NC 27310

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