Archives for category: architecture



Our house is for sale and the experience is somewhat unnerving. Like a high school senior with applications to ten colleges we have no idea what or where our lives will be in ten months. The only thing for certain is uncertainty. Not only do we not know when or for what price someone will buy our home, we have no idea what sort of buyer to expect. We learned that lesson the last time around.






In 2008, in the depths of the most recent housing and stock market busts, we put our house in Ramsey, NJ up for sale. Two years earlier, in the flush of the real estate and stock market booms that had preceded the busts, we’d impulsively bought a house in North Carolina and started a two-year process to move south.

The timing cost us money, but no need to second-guess water for having flowed under the bridge. In the world of bold real estate moves, the relevant cliché’ is: “You win some, you lose some.”

Concurrent with the downtown in the 2008 market my wife, Katie, obtained her real estate license. Cause and effect? Bad luck?





I know this: In six months on the job she had customers who missed appointments; customers who couldn’t make decisions; and, customers who made the attitude “the customer is always right” impossible to maintain. Despite working every weekend she never made a sale nor obtained a listing.

But she did have the inside track on listing our own home. I interviewed her carefully:

“What commission will you charge?” I asked.

“None,” she said. “We’ll save at least 1.5%.”

“You’re hired,” I said.




In anticipation of listing the home, Katie had a carload of agents from her office visit and offer suggestions.   As a result, we moved furnishings around and painted several walls. We weren’t exactly “staged,” but some wisdom from experience was put to work.   A cedar shake contemporary with unique window shapes and exposed beams, our house was not for everyone. For a buyer with traditional tastes (ninety percent, according to studies), our house would not appeal.

Concerned that selling might be a slog we listed on September 1, nearly a year before our mid-2009 move date.   If a buyer appeared and offered a reasonable price, we would do the deal, regardless of closing date, even if we had to move out early. After all, our likeliest buyer would be open to the unusual, the absurd and the lack of any ceilings over most of the first floor. We couldn’t risk losing them.

The first few showings weren’t promising. “Weird,” said one review. “Too modern for us,” said another. One customer was open to a contemporary home but required a swimming pool.  A foreign customer indicated he liked the interior but wanted us to replace the exterior siding.

“Is anything wrong with it?” Katie asked.

“No, they just don’t like it,” said their agent.

“That would cost $40,000,” said Katie.

The agent offered the telephone equivalent of a shrug.

Several other lookers needed to sell their homes first, a contingency we wouldn’t consider. Most were simply not interested, either due to price or location or the sheer unusualness of the construction. Since the etiquette is for the homeowner to not be present for a showing I never saw the prospective buyers. Feedback filtered from realtors to Katie over the telephone.






One evening Katie received a phone call from a shopper who said he’d located our listing himself on his computer.   Though on-line shopping is now the norm, in 2008, buyers were just beginning to shift from having a realtor compile a list of houses for them to see. The caller (called Joseph herein) had no agent and, therefore, would be Katie’s customer if he chose to buy. We were excited at the prospect of saving an additional 1.5% but also concerned he was wasting Katie’s time.

“Does he have a family?” I asked.

“No, he’s single,” said Katie.

“He wants a four bedroom house in the suburbs for himself?” I asked.

“He said he wants to see it,” said Katie. “It can’t hurt, right?”

“Good point,” I said. “So is he coming out next weekend?” I asked.

“Actually,” he wants to come tomorrow morning at 7,” said Katie.

“Seven a.m.!” I said, intrigued. “Why?”

“He said he works odd hours,” said Katie.

“Hmmm,” I said. “Sounds strange. I’ll hang around to see him.”




At night, before falling asleep, we speculated what Joseph might have found attractive about the on-line picture of our house.

“Maybe the rhombus-shaped windows,” I guessed.

“Maybe the decks shaped like a ship,” said Katie.

“Or the pile of boulders in the front yard instead of grass. He won’t have to mow them,” I said.

By 7:20 the next morning we’d heard nothing from Joseph.

“Probably not showing up,” I said, the voice of skepticism.

“Don’t be negative,” said Katie, though she was also fighting the fatigue of dealing with disappointments.

At that moment a massive black Range Rover sped around the corner and pulled into our driveway. I peaked through our bedroom blinds to see it stop abruptly just inches from our garage door. The driver remained inside behind tinted glass for several minutes talking on a cell-phone, long enough for me to express more negativity. “Joseph might be a mobster.”



Finally, he emerged, a middle-aged man with medium-dark features and a long, black ponytail. He had earrings, tattoos and wore a leather jacket. “This guy is not Mr. Suburbia,” I reported to Katie while we went to open the front door. “Looks more like Cheech or Chong.”

The doorbell rang and Katie greeted Joseph while I hung back, curious but vigilant. Though his affect was far more motorcycle gang than soccer dad he was soft-spoken and polite.

“Sorry for being late,” he said. “I work crazy hours.”

“What do you do?” asked Katie.

“I’m a drummer in a band,” he said.




“Wow,” said Katie. “Our children might know your band but we’re not really up on the local music scene, so….”

“You might have heard of us,” he said. “The Allman Brothers.”

“THE Allman Brothers?” repeated Katie.

“The ONLY Allman Brothers,” he said, smiling.

Joseph walked past us through the foyer and gazed into our living room, while we were still processing our shock. He didn’t appear to notice the cathedral-like ceiling; he didn’t look out the windows to the woods beyond; he didn’t remark on the vast expanse of open space. He walked straight to the fireplace, the most traditional part of the entire house.

“Is it a real fireplace?” he asked, a dreamy expression on his face.

“Yes,” said Katie.

“Does it work with wood?” Joseph asked.

“Yes,” said Katie. She glanced at me as though to say: “This is weird.”

“Can you make a fire?” he asked.

“Sure,” said Katie, who motioned to me to gather some wood.

“Can I sit here?” he asked, taking a seat on a couch in front of the hearth.

He watched as we got the flames going. I couldn’t help wondering why the most unexceptional aspect of our house appealed so much to this famous musician.




We sat down on a sofa across from him and watched the fire crackle. Katie and I hoped the flue would clear the smoke more effectively than it usually did. Joseph looked like the most contented man on earth.

After the fire died down he took a quick look around the house. Finally, he said: “I’ll take it. I’ve always wanted a working fireplace.”

It certainly was not up to Katie to point out that every house in our neighborhood had a fireplace. Probably, most houses in our town had fireplaces. Over the next few days I worked out the terms of the contract with the drummer’s attorney. He barely negotiated off our asking price. We closed two months later.



When our daughter, Sarah, was little, her favorite books were the Berenstain Bears series. One was entitled: “Don’t Judge a Book by its Cover.” The expression always stayed with me but I’d never applied it to my own life until dealing with our buyer, the vaguely scary-looking sweetheart of a man who played drums for one of the wildest rock bands in history. Due to my ecological sympathies, my view of massive SUV’s is still reflexively negative. But my view of pony-tailed, tattooed, earring-wearing, leather-clad men is as non-judgmental as can be.













Jimmy was our teenaged neighbor when we were freshly married and living in northern New Jersey.  Unlike the typical high school students in our high-achieving town, Jimmy was not fixated on attending an Ivy League college and in obtaining the BMW that was certain to follow.  Rather, he was interested in auto maintenance and handyman tasks.  This desire was useful, since his parents’ collection of aged hatchbacks required the former, and our semi-renovated Victorian house required the latter.

When Jimmy was not peering under the hood of a car whose color was unknown to nature, he was in our house destroying old plaster walls and discovering new sources of seepage.  He worked deliberately but charged so little that it never occurred to me to complain.  Jimmy was a quiet perfectionist.

Jimmy’s parents were devout church-goers but his Dad truly sought salvation in the performance of his favorite football team.  His mother found excitement and happiness in her garden.   Besides odd jobs, surprisingly, Jimmy’s passionate interest was in fundamentalist Catholic theology.  To that end, for a couple of years after graduating from high school, he sported hair and a beard like Jesus’s.   He saved his earnings from repair jobs and a part-time position at an auto body shop to visit sites in Europe where minor miracles (as opposed to the big splashy ones, like the parting of the Red Sea) had taken place.

Jimmy’s eyes misted over when he described a shack in Poland or Romania where thorns had reportedly turned to flowers or water had turned to wine, or some similar cause for skepticism on my part.  Each place was named for an obscure saint with a previously unheard of name.  Jimmy’s absolute sincerity precluded overt ridicule; one had to respect his fervor.

When my office required construction of a wall, we called Jimmy.  When our basement needed painting, we called Jimmy.  Even though he finally entered Rutgers on what was to become a leisurely, seven year journey, Jimmy remained available to complete an assortment of household projects.

The primary personal characteristic of Jimmy, who, around age twenty-seven, became known as “Jim,” was a sense of indecisive acceptance.  “Yeah, well, you know.…” he would say regarding almost anything.  Faced with disagreement, he would say:  “Yeah, sure, I guess.”  Responding to a question, he would answer, “Well, maybe, I suppose.”  Despite his extreme passivity, we sensed there to be acute intelligence somewhere deep inside.  Jim was unfailingly patient and kind; he designed and built a soaring tree house for our children with leftover wood, and then refused payment for the work.

After he graduated from Rutgers, Jim found work as a mechanic for a trucking firm and moved to an apartment closer to work.   One day, I saw him arrive to visit his parents and I rushed to greet him before he went inside.

“How’s the job?” I asked.

“Well, you know,” he replied.

“Is it interesting?”

He shrugged his shoulders.

“You should consider design school or architecture,” I stated, with conviction.  “That tree house is amazing.  You have a special talent.”

“Yeah, I guess.  Never really thought about it,” he replied.

“Great to see you,” I said.

Jim took a moment to reply.  He seemed to be pondering what I had said earlier.

“Oh, yeah,” he said, trailing off, more distracted than usual.  Then he brightened, and his voice caught with emotion:  “I’m going to Bulgaria next week to see where Saint (Unpronounceable) prevented a flood by reversing a river.”

“That’s great, Jim,” I said, trying hard to sound sincere.

“Can you imagine what it would be like to be a saint?” he asked.

I shook my head.  “I definitely cannot.”

I was gratified, several months later, when Jim’s mother told me he was starting architecture school.  I thought I might have made an impact.  Shortly thereafter, we moved to a different town and lost touch with Jim and his family, except for annual holiday cards.

Several years later, we were having a vacation house constructed in Costa Rica.  Our builder was confident that he could obtain all the necessary permits with the plans he drew up himself, but he was surprised to find out he needed a sealed and certified architect’s plan for the complicated roof line.

“It’s urgent,” he said.  “I’m so sorry for this short notice.  I’m afraid that if I do not have an official plan to present when the inspector comes out next week, he will not be in the region again for months.  The whole project will be held up.  Do you know any architects?”

We did not know any architects, we thought, at first, then remembered Jim.  Sure enough, his parents told us that, at age thirty-five, he had recently become a fully licensed architect.  He worked at a small firm in south Jersey and, they were sure he would be delighted to supplement his meager income with a moonlighting assignment.

“After all,” said his dad, “a roof system for a whole house is more exciting than the baseboards and mantel pieces they have him working on now.”

“Do you have an e-mail address for him?” I asked.

“He hasn’t gotten around to that, yet,” said his mother.  “But here is his phone number.”

Like his dad, I thought Jim would be excited to create drawings for a vacation home overlooking the Pacific Ocean.  I was surprised it required several messages before he called back.

“Hi, yeah, I heard about the house,” he said.  “I guess I could draw up something.”

“Jim, the floor plan is already done,” I explained.  “We need a roof system drawn up, but we only have a few days.  Can you do it?  You can be creative, like with the tree house.”

“Okay, I guess…. I suppose,” he said.

Jim agreed to come up and meet with us the next day.  We spread out the floor plan on the dining room table and provided photographs of the mountainside lot and its views of the Pacific Ocean.  We waited in vain for some reaction as Jim stared impassively.  He started to speak and stopped several times:  “…this room, uhhhh… hmmmmm, yeah, okay, hmmmmm….”

“Is everything okay?” I asked.

“Yeah,” he replied, after a long pause.  “I guess, ummm, this will work out.”

After another hour of similar hemming and hawing, Jim said he would produce a plan in a day or two.  He asked if he could charge $50 an hour and said he could finish in just six or seven hours.

“Jim,” I said.  “This would have cost us a minimum fee of $5,000 with an architectural firm.  I won’t pay you less than $1,000, no matter what.”

“Whatever,” he shrugged.

I could not resist asking Jim a question before he left:  “Do you enjoy being an architect?”

“I suppose,” he said.

“Do you remember when I suggested you consider it?”

He looked perplexed.

“Hunh?” he replied.

I dropped the subject.   Jim justified our faith by producing a series of precise and interesting drawings and calculations in just two days.  We e-mailed them to our builder who pronounced them excellent.  Our architectural crisis was averted.   Jim needed weeks of prodding but he finally forwarded an invoice, his #001, for $1,000.

We forwarded early photographs of the construction to Jim since we thought he would find them exciting or, at least, interesting.  We did not hear from him.  When the roof finally went on and his job #001 was actualized, we mailed him color photographs and a note thanking him for his help.  Again, we did not hear from him.  Afraid that we did not have the right mailing address, we called Jim.

“Did you receive the pictures?”

“Oh, yeah, I got them.  Thanks,” he said.

“The house looks stunning, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, I guess.  It looks pretty good, I suppose.”

We hung up feeling vaguely unfulfilled.  Perhaps, we wanted to pierce his wall of seeming indifference.  Perhaps, we wanted to hear an architect enthuse about our house.  Perhaps, we wanted Jim to express just one iota of wonder at his own, earthly accomplishment.

Upon reflection, we had to conclude that Jim’s outlook and behavior is not ours to change.  It is hard enough to influence immediate family members; how could we presume to influence what excites a mere friendly acquaintance?  Finally, who knows?   If consistency is a sacred virtue, Jim might well be a saint someday.