Monday, July 30, 2007

20 Questions


You may be familiar with the old game show "20 Questions," where the questioners were allowed 20 questions to try to deduce the answer, and the "answerer" could only respond "yes" or "no". It just so happens we went through a similar exercise with my brother, our architect, around Christmas of last year (2006). We essentially asked 20 questions of each other, using a helpful pamphlet put out by the Minnesota chapter of the American Institute of Architects called, "Architecturally Designed Homes and You." In the pamphlet are 20 questions that the clients should ask their architect, and likewise 20 questions the clients should respond to for their architect. As you can probably guess, we went a little beyond only "yes" or "no" answers.

The 20 questions for my brother were useful for us, because there were still some significant unknowns hanging out there for which we needed clarification. For instance, my brother lives on the East coast, so how exactly would it work to have a "remote" architect? (Answer: it's done quite frequently in the architecture world, and it wouldn't be a problem. Site visits could be scheduled with my brother's regular trips back to MN, or he could arrange to fly back specifically for site visits.). Also, as mentioned in a previous post, my brother works for a very high-profile, international architecture firm, and needless to say he is extremely busy. Would he really be able to give the attention to our project that we needed? (Answer: Yes, this would be a challenge, but as my brother he is really invested in this project, not to mention the uniqueness of it with respect to this being a radically Catholic home. He would make it happen). This Q&A provided very useful discussions, and allowed us to get a picture of how the process would work.

As far as the questions we needed to respond to as the clients, this was, I must say, an extremely fun exercise for Molly and me. Sitting down for an evening to talk about your dreams for your new house and typing them out is great fun in itself, but typing assumptions such as "We assume cost is no object in this exercise" makes it even more fun! One interesting question for which I'll post our answers was #10, "What do you think your new home should look like?" Molly and I answered this question separately, to kind of see where we were at (especially our differences). Simply cutting and pasting from our original Q&A answers, here were Molly's thoughts at the time:
  • Inviting
  • Open
  • Bright
  • Enjoy houses that are Victorian/country (dormers, etc.)
  • Traditional, yet modern
  • Organized and contiguous in design flow throughout the home
  • Versatile for all seasons
And here were my thoughts:

  • Timeless design
  • Transcendent – e.g. chapel must draw one into prayer, cultivate a feeling of awe/sacredness/etc.
  • Clean lines (the most tired cliché in the book, but I say it nonetheless)
  • Not mimimalism
  • Must reflect our faith throughout the home (chapel is focal point, but not compartmentalized)
  • Must reflect priorities – the raising of our children, not materialism
  • Light (Interesting, well thought-out interior lighting, lots of outside light)
  • Enjoy a more modern feel (e.g. how I designed my current office) but don’t subscribe to all the philosophies of modernism/post-modernism. (i.e. while I really like buildings like the new Guthrie Theater, Walker Art Center, etc., I reject most all modern/post-modern Catholic churches, which in general are not designed with a Catholic theology, do not translate the faith, and are more just meeting halls). Beauty, transcendence, etc. are important.
  • Utterly reject “cookie cutter” homes, and bland exurban developments - nauseating
Okay, I know I'm more wordy on this stuff than Molly, you can tell that from the posts on this blog.

At any rate, we really enjoyed the Q&A exercise, and it really got us started in thinking about concepts for our home. Just in case you are interested, or would simply like to dream about the future, or learn about good design, I would highly recommend checking out the other pamphlets and "best practices" articles from the American Institute of Architects. They're short, fun to read, and very informative. Enjoy!

"How to Hire the Right Architect for Your Project"

"You and Your Architect: A Guide for a Successful Partnership"

"Six Approaches to Building Your Dream House"

"Eight Pillars of Traditional Design"

"Ten Key Factors that Affect Any Design"

"Core Qualities that Make a Great American Home"

Thursday, July 26, 2007

A word on Brendan's second-newest hobby


I just had to say a few words regarding Brendan's last entry. This was originally just a comment under his post, but I figured it could stand alone and it might seem that I am contributing to this project here and there. So, Brendan decided to take up this new hobby just after Christmas of last year. As you have well discovered, Brendan never does anything without doing it all the way. (Well, perhaps not NEVER as a few of the "Honey Do" list items come to mind). So, at least anything he genuinely has interest in is always completed 100%. In fact, he never starts something unless he knows he can do it well. I must admit the first conversations with Brendan about his desire to dapple in the world of art began with his mentioning a hope to one day do artwork for our chapel. Murals. He specifically mentioned murals. And, being the supportive wife I am I stared right at him and kindly asked, "so, you're planning to start painting our walls?" This question sent the two of us into utter hysterics. Apparently, Brendan realized at this moment that he had again been "thinking big" and neglected to inform me of the baby steps he would take towards his end goal--all of which would save our current walls, anyway, from his artistic expression. (His artistic expression, not necessarily that of our children, but that's another story). So, his new hobby has been a royal success and an excuse for me to tell the kids that I can't draw a squirrel for them, but that perhaps Daddy can.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Evangelization through art in the Catholic home

I've waxed on and on about chapel design, in theory and practice, partly due to the fact that this was the thought process I went through late last year and into this year and partly due to my continuing interest. Most of these discussions have centered on architecture of a sacred space, whether it be chapel, church, or cathedral, but have not referred to the essential role that art plays in evangelization and communication of eternal truths to those who observe it. Loosely, one can fit art into the essential role that iconography plays in a church, but art is unique in that it goes far beyond a church and into the world at large. Sacred art, including paintings and sculpture, is located all over the place, not just in churches.

When thinking about our chapel, I thought (never one to limit my goals), "It would be awesome to have paintings on the walls or ceiling of the chapel." I've been to the Sistine Chapel, when Molly and I went to Rome for World Youth Day in 2000, and what a breathtaking experience that was. Not to mention that my interest in art had been piqued by an elective class I took at the University of Minnesota on Renaissance Art History (classes were held at the Minneapolis Institute of Art), where I was exposed to the powerful vehicle that painting, sculpture, and architecture can be in transmitting truths of the faith. Beyond the chapel of our home, I wanted art to serve throughout the home, constantly providing beauty and transcendence, as well as evangelizing our family. This would assist in preventing compartmentalization of our familial faith-life in the chapel, and ensure that a visible iconography was present everywhere in our home.

But, great art costs money. Most of the time, lots of money. Forget how much money it would take to pay a mural artist to paint the ceiling of our chapel, individual pieces themselves can cost thousands of dollars. And I imagined having to coach some poor mural artist through exactly what I wanted, and never being satisfied with the result, or never finding the exact piece of religious art that I wanted (never mind the cost).

So, having thought through this exercise, I came to the conclusion that I should just do it myself. I've never had any training in art, whether it be drawing or painting (certainly not sculpture). I think my last art class was in 8th or 9th grade. But, I always felt that if I ever tried to apply myself, I could develop a talent for it. I have done some sketching on my own over the years, though I can't say I've done so with any seriousness for over 15 years (I remember entering a drawing in a 4-H competition). So, the first task (which is always my course of action) was to read lots and lots of books. In January and February of this year, I read 10-15 books on painting and drawing. A few that I highly recommend are:

Classical Drawing Atelier: A Contemporary Guide to Traditional Studio Practice
By Juliette Aristides

Language of the Body: Drawings by Pierre Paul Prud'hon
By John Elderfield
(I checked it out from the U of MN library)

The Artist's Complete Guide to Figure Drawing: A Contemporary Perspective on the Classical Tradition
By Anthony J. Ryder

But, if I really had to pinpoint where I learned the most, it was on the internet. Without the internet, I don't think I'd have a clue what I was doing, or at least it would take me far longer to get up to speed and I almost certainly would need to take a class. Here are some web sites that I found invaluable:

The Art Renewal Center (I launched from here to all sorts of sites, but this is where I started)

Great sites on the "sight-size" method of drawing and painting from life are here, here, and here.

American Artist: Drawing

The Atelier in Minneapolis, MN (one of many fine Ateliers around the country that are keeping classical realism alive)

So, to cut to the chase, I am in the middle of my self-imposed "year of drawing," where I will insist (as was done in original Ateliers in the 18th and 19th centuries) that I become proficient at drawing before I pick up a paint brush. My goal is to be well into oil painting by the time our home is done. Here are two drawings that I completed recently, feel free to comment and let me know what you think (I don't mind criticism). In both cases I had a smaller photograph as inspiration.

"Mother Theresa in Prayer"
Graphite and white chalk on toned paper
By Brendan Koop

"Contemplation of Saint Joseph"
Vine charcoal on off-white paper
By Brendan Koop

These embedded images are digital photos of the drawings (because of the media I used, scanning wasn't an option).

Good artists are made, not born, and I am living testament to that. Drawing itself is a craft that must be learned, and I certainly have no special talent. If anything, it only takes an extremely high level of determination, and I probably have that in abundance. Though I am beginning to train my eye and hand to truthfully represent the world before me, I have a long, looooong way to go before I am proficient in painting to the point where I will feel comfortable creating art for our home. But I feel the Lord has led me down this route and I plan on pusuing it for the rest of my life. It's quite fascinating and rewarding!

Ecclesia Domestica featured at "Shrine of the Holy Whapping"!


For those of you who don't know what the "Shrine of the Holy Whapping" is, the title of this post is probably something you'd never thought you'd read on this blog. The Shrine of the Holy Whapping is one of the more trafficked Catholic blogs on the internet, as one can see by all of their awards in the sidebar on the right. (I think I used the word "trafficked" correctly there, but hopefully there's no connection with illegal drug activity implied). I've even read their stuff from time to time as I surf Catholic blogs. At any rate, I had no idea that one of the bloggers at "the Shrine," Emily, is actually the Emily from a family with which we are friends from our parish, the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN. Her mom actually e-mailed Molly and pointed out Emily's post, and now I understand why our blog has been getting so many hits in only two weeks of existence! We've had over 1,100 unique visitors and over 1,350 hits.

You can read Emily's post here.

The comments are really fun to read, and many of them are hilarious. One person suggested that a "liturgical dance studio" might be in order for the home, along with lots of "felt banners." I also liked the suggestion of a 61" HDTV for watching EWTN (of course). I'll have to work those into the plan.

One person who commented unfortunately totally misinterpreted our blog (in contrast to everyone else who posted), but it's natural that not everyone will understand everything we write. Such is the price of blogging :-)

Thanks for the post Emily!

Monday, July 23, 2007

A word about our architect....


As I have noted in previous posts, our architect is my oldest younger brother, and what a blessing it is to have such a resource right in our family! You also may notice that I haven't been using his name in type at all, and this has been done very purposefully. First, a little background on my brother. He has an undergraduate degree in architecture from Washington University in St. Louis, MO, and a Master's degree in architecture from Harvard University. After finishing school, he went on to take a position as an architect in a very high-profile, international architecture firm. He has overseen a diverse array of projects, mostly to this point focusing on school projects. Our home will be his first residential project, but of course he's not doing this as part of his firm, he's doing this independently. This seems obvious to most any observer; his architecture firm doesn't really do residential projects, they work on a much larger scale than that. Still, in architecture in general it can be frowned upon to work on side-projects while working at a firm, and so my brother would rather not show up on any Google searches. One notable example in architecture history of this conflict was Frank Lloyd Wright, as described in his entry in Wikipedia (italics are my emphasis):
...Within the year, he had left Silsbee to work for the firm of Adler & Sullivan. In 1889, he married his first wife, Catherine Lee "Kitty" Tobin, purchased land in Oak Park, IL and built his first home, and eventually his studio there. His marriage to Kitty Tobin, the daughter of a wealthy businessman, raised his social status, and he became more well-known. Beginning in 1890, he was assigned all residential design work for the firm. In 1893, Louis Sullivan himself unwillingly asked Wright to leave the firm after he discovered that Wright had been accepting clients independently from the firm (moonlighting). Wright established his own practice and home in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park, IL. By 1901, Wright's completed projects numbered approximately fifty, including many houses in his hometown.
Now this seems a different situation, as Mr. Wright's firm was clearly engaged in residential architecture, and accepting clients independent of the firm could be seen as taking business away from the firm. This is not the case with our situation with my brother. Still, caution is probably the best practice. We are so blessed to be able to have someone of his talent as our architect, I had to give him some props on the blog, even if I don't type his name!

Sunday, July 22, 2007

Chapel design in light of the Tradition of the Church

So here I go on a rather academic topic, but still no doubt of interest to some of you who read this blog. It's obviously of interest to me or I wouldn't be writing about it. I think it's important enough to establish the fact that I'm serious about our chapel and I want it to in some way reflect the architectural traditions of the Church (and the "big-T" Tradition of the Church). This may seem a little goofy, or that I'm taking this a little too seriously, but whenever I do something, I do it all the way (or else, what's the point?). This blog is probably one example. My seminarian brother Evan (in his second year of seminary at the St. Paul Seminary, the major seminary of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis) has already commented to me that this blog is a great example of the axiom, "anything worth doing is worth overdoing." I kind of like that actually. Molly is kind of the practical half our spousal unity, as you can see in the one post she has done on the blog so far. As another example of this, I remember talking to her about ideas I had for the chapel design, when she commented "Do you think it will be cold in there?" Perplexed, I gave her the standard blank stare, to which she continued, "I guess when I picture it in my mind, I'm imagining going in there early in the morning for prayer, and having my bare feet touch the floor and it will be freezing." Okay, I guess I never thought of that, especially since I am quite sure there will not be carpet in there. I offered up a suggestion that we look into installing in-floor radiant heat in the chapel, and that seemed to be satisfactory to her. Brendan = theoretical, Molly = practical.

At any rate, I mentioned in the last post that I had set out to educate myself in the architectural traditions of the Church, and Duncan Stroik's web site was the place I started. He has links to many publications he has authored that shed light on what is necessary for a truly timeless Catholic church design, and why (as is painfully obvious to most of us) the vast majority of Catholic churches in the latter half of the 20th century fall woefully short of these standards (in some cases scandalously so). But what are these standards? It was actually Michael S. Rose, author of Ugly As Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches from Sacred Places to Meeting Spaces and How We Can Change Them Back Again, that summed it up most understandably for me when he writes that Catholic churches must incorporate five absolutely necessary elements:
  • Verticality
  • Iconography
  • Formality
  • Hierarchy
  • Permanence
In my own words, I'll quickly explain these. The first is verticality. Catholic churches post Vatican II (and some before) have often emphasized our relationships with each other (which are important as part of the Church) to the detriment of emphasis on our relationship with the Lord (which is even more important). This over-emphasis is expressed architecturally in "horizontal" churches; that is, churches that keep our spirits rooted to the ground and concentrated on each other instead of lifting them upward to the Lord. Some random but notable examples of this are Notre Dame du Haut, the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels, the Chapel of St. Ignatius at Seattle University,

and pretty much every church project this hopefully well-meaning but extremely misguided priest consults for.

Opposite of this are some wonderful examples of how incorporation of verticality assists one's spirit to awe and reverence, such as the Cathedral of St. Paul in St. Paul, MN (the most beautiful church in America, but I'm biased), St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, and the currently under-construction Shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe in Lacrosse, WI.

Verticality is a concept that is fairly easy to understand. If you enter a church and look upward and whisper to yourself "wow!", that's probably a church that has been successful in making use of verticality.

Iconography is maybe even easier to explain and understand. You kind of either have it, or you don't. Iconography is paintings, sculpture, icons, reliefs, stained-glass windows, etc. that communicate essential aspects of the faith to the faithful. Absence of these essential items means absence of beauty and of an essential mode of evangelization: art. In Catholic churches, post Vatican II modernism often felt embarassed by core-tenets of the faith, such as asking those in heaven, who are more alive and closer to God than us, to pray for us. This resulted in the conspicuous absence of sculptures, paintings, and side chapels dedicated to the saints. We are physical beings, created as such by God, and physical manifestations of the faith communicate to us in very powerful ways.

Formality, another necessity, means that a Catholic church is a place for worship and the reception of the sacraments, not a meeting hall or warehouse. Thus, the actual structure must be designed to communicate a certain level of formality to the faithful. Lots of carpeting, plushly cushioned pews, and cheap materials hurt the sense that the church is a place for prayer and a direct encounter with the Lord.

Hierarchy is also important, in that the priest is the representative of the faithful during the mass. Pews that are oriented in one direction toward the altar, with a defined nave and sanctuary, rightly order the church for the hierarchical liturgy of the mass. Of course, many in the modern or post-modern world don't feel "validated" or "included" with such a design, and so churches were designed with the altar in the center of all of the pews, with the pews in an almost theater-like arrangement around the altar, which may have given the desired emotional response but destroyed the hierarchy of the mass and de-emphasized the importance of the priest.

Lastly, permanence requires the construction of a church with solid, well-constructed, and yes even expensive materials, rather than cheap materials that make the structure feel as if it will need to be replaced in 20 years (and indeed that often happens). Duncan Stroik commented in an article that I read that it may sometimes be expensive to build a church the right way, but if necessary, build the church in stages. Let the construction proceed in stages, even involving more than one generation of parishioners. Cathedrals often took decades to construct, why must we be so impatient? Create a nave and sanctuary, then leave side chapels, or a formal baptistry, or other spaces for later when they can be done properly. Create a truly reverent space for the Lord, a Domus Dei (House of God). Permanence aids worship almost subconsciously, because it symbolizes the permanence of the greater Church.

Sum all of these elements together and you get another overarching ideal: transcendence. This is a goal for our chapel and for our entire home, an acknowledgement that a greater reality extends beyond the basic structure, a supernatural reality.

How will these five elements manifest themselves in our chapel? We don't know at this point, but the heavy lifting has already been done in realizing the importance of these elements and in desiring their inclusion the design of the chapel. I pray that God's will be done in every aspect of the home and in our family.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Some introductory commentary on chapel design


I mentioned in my background post that at a certain point in the development of our idea of what a Catholic home should be and needed to be, that I thought it should have a chapel as part of the design. The idea of having a part of the home that functioned as a real chapel fit so well with other aspects of our family life, such as homeschooling and our practice of family prayer time, that it seemed like almost a necessity. Of course, a family doesn't need a chapel in order to do family prayer time or even for individual prayer time, but I don't know of many faith-centered families that would disagree that a chapel would significantly enhance these activities. And that's what building this home is all about, enhancing and assisting all family activities that are ordered toward our purpose: to know, love, and serve God and his Church. All such activities can be done in any environment, we simply desire the best environment for our family (the engineer in me desires an "optimized" environment, but I won't go there).

To this end, in regard to the chapel I started on a research project of my own. First, it was fairly simplistic. I wanted to find out if anyone else out there had conceived of a private chapel in a home and actually put it into practice. Not a private chapel for a religious community, which are fairly common, or a chapel in an ordained minister's residence, such as a bishop or priest, but a chapel that was designed into a residential single-family home. I researched quite extensively throughout the internet on this question and found the answer: yes, this has been done before, but very, very rarely. In fact, I have only been able to find two such instances in all my searches (feel free to post a comment if you know of any others that aren't findable on the internet, or let me know if I missed some that are).

The architect for both of these private home chapels is Duncan Stroik, in my opinion (which I only gained after all of my research) the foremost American Catholic church architect today. He doesn't only design Catholic churches, but his churches are certainly what he is known for, and what he can rightfully claim (in my opinion) to be the best at in America. In fact, I would say that he's the best in the world right now, though I haven't done as much research on international Catholic architects. Let's take a quick look at these two private home chapels.

Here is a chapel that Duncan Stroik designed for a home in Nebraska, dedicated to the Holy Family.

Go here for more pictures and an explanation by Duncan Stroik.

This is a ridiculously, almost absurdly beautiful space. Based on what I know now regarding the amount of custom pieces designed for this chapel and the types of materials used, I'm guessing that just this chapel alone cost somewhere on the order of $1,000,000. No, that's not a joke. So the natural question is, is this worth it? I guess it depends on the family, they obviously are quite wealthy. There's no question that if we tried to emulate the materials of this chapel and the detail and custom artwork, it would be immoral for our family, because we would be spending an exorbitant amount of money (that we don't have) on one space to the neglect of our children's welfare. But one can recognize and honor beauty so pure as this when one sees it.

One aspect that I'm not so sure about is the tabernacle. I trust this family got the permission of the local bishop to have an actual tabernacle in their chapel, with the blessed sacrament contained inside it, and I wonder about this. It would not be our intent to replace the function of our local parish in any way, and I wouldn't want to set up such a dual structure, where we might even be tempted not to keep our scheduled weekly adoration time because, heck, the tabernacle is right in our own chapel. Further, having an actual tabernacle with the blessed sacrament is far, far more responsibility than I would want in my house. There's innumerable things I could imagine our kids doing that would not be compatible with having a tabernacle (Aidan climbing and jumping off of it comes to mind).

Moving on, let's take a look at the second. This is a chapel that Duncan Stroik designed for a private residence (actually a ranch) in Lubbock, Texas, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus.

Here's the link to the description by Duncan Stroik.

This is less opulent than the previous chapel, but it still fulfills its purpose: to lift one's spirit up to the Lord in prayer and reverence. This is a rather large chapel in that it seats 36 people. It's also detached from the main home, which is not what we would want for our home because it lessens the integration with the daily family life. I would like to frequently "pass by" our chapel and be prompted to prayer, rather than having to make an act of the will to go to the chapel outside of the main home. Still, I bet this is exactly what this family wanted, given that they live on or own a ranch. It could be somewhat of a retreat to be at this chapel, and I love the little courtyard out in front.

As I considered these chapel designs, and why they "work" or are "good" examples of Catholic architecture, I realized that I wasn't really well versed on the specifics of the architectural language of Catholic churches through history. Duncan Stroik was clearly employing specific elements of this historical language, but I didn't know what they were. And if I was going to have intelligent ideas about our own chapel, I realized I needed to research and learn (something I am never averse to). I leave what I learned for the next post. In the mean time, take a look at the stunning portfolio of Duncan Stroik's work. As a bit of a teaser for future posts, I actually corresponded with Duncan Stroik over e-mail about our chapel, and got some great ideas and information! As always, God bless!

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

So, Where's Molly?


As the posts have come together so eloquently and the pictures have been uploaded, some have asked, "So, where's Molly?" I can answer that question! Generally, Brendan has taken visitors to the property while I have been either too pregnant to get around on the uneven terrain or tending to a newborn. Eleanor will often be napping while the visits occur as well. Other times, the family has taken a drive out to visit the land after Sunday Mass. Sometimes we just drive out there, roll down the van windows, and listen. Ahhh. We hear nothing except chirping birds and quiet breezes--a wonderful thing compared to the air brakes of large vehicles stopping at the intersection of 242 and Foley or the loud buzz of motorcycles driven by burley men with no helmets--gasp!! So, Brendan will trudge around taking pictures while I discuss with the children whether they deserve lunch at McDonald's after their behavior during Mass embarrassed the entire family and required the help of the kind people in the pew behind us to make it through the communion line.

While Brendan studies church architecture and discusses with his brother the viewpoints from each room, rest assured that I will be making my case for a flushable toddler toilet (may I never dump out and bleach a plastic potty again), a pantry with lots of storage for the large kitchen appliances, and my own personal jacuzzi bathtub that when full actually covers a pregnant belly. And yes, Grandma Jeanie, the kitchen should be near the entry to simplify the process of unloading groceries and the laundry room close to the bedrooms to avoid the giant step over the clothes piles on the stairs and the claim of "I didn't see them there."

In all honesty, though, our entire family feels very blessed to begin this process of building a home in which to raise the souls of the children God has entrusted to us--and those yet to come! I have already imagined Clara telling her sisters "let's put on our tutus, move all of our beds 'togeller' and leave all of this space for our princess ballroom." And spitfire Eleanor will of course say, "Don't be so bossy." I imagine our family prayer time in our chapel after mealtime and Aidan requesting a "decade of 'De-bine Mercy." And Baby Max will be a bouncing 2 1/2-year-old by then, and still likely the most well-behaved child to grace our family. So, may the Lord be with us as we seek to do His will in all things and may we truly live "Ecclesia Domestica."

Pictures of our land: Fall, Winter, Spring, and Summer


So now we've gotten to the point of actually posting some pictures of our land, taken with our good old-fashioned 3.2 MP digital camera. We've actually seen all four seasons with the land, as the first time we set eyes on it I believe was early November 2006. It can be kind of hard to get oriented in terms of which way the picture is facing, so I've included a handy little legend picture (probably 90% of you just like looking at the pictures, fine... the engineer in me needs to provide some spatial perspective on a schematic drawing). The legend image, as with all the images below, can be clicked to be enlarged.


Fall 2006
We had my family out to see the land after we signed a purchase agreement, and so here's a few pictures from their visit. Here's the "sold" sign!

This is a picture of my youngest brother Evan and my sister Allison walking out towards the wetland area (I'm the oldest of four).

Here's looking back from the wetland area towards the buildable land, on the West side of the property, with my parents.

And here's a view across the wetland area to the East side of the property. A road is in the process of being constructed along the East border of our property, but there's enough trees and vegetation that it should be naturally blocked from view.

Winter 2006/2007
Here's great picture of my "older-younger" brother (our architect) with the eldest two of our kids as we visit the property for my brother to take pictures.

And here's me with the kids on that same trip.

Spring 2007
The Spring is interesting at the property, as all of the snow has packed down the tall grasses and reeds in the wetland area so that it's really easy to walk around. Again, the eldest two kids and I took a trip to see the property in the Spring and take some pictures (not to mention to have Aidan blow off some energy, of which he has in seemingly infinite abundance). Here are the little buddies!

Summer 2007
And finally, here are the most up-to-date pictures. I just took these in early July, and wow the wetland looks totally different in Summer! It is almost impassable; I was able to get out and walk a few yards in, but the grasses and reeds are almost up to my chest. It's beautiful though, I'm really looking forward to the views in the Summers. Here's what it looks like under the trees on the buildable area.

And here's a look at the two main site-lines out the wetland area. These site-lines will be utilized to give great views from various rooms of the home.

And here's one last look back at the buildable area from the wetland (at least as far as I was willing to walk in). As can be seen, a lot of trees are going to have to come down to make room for the home. However, we are working in plans try to save the biggest trees.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Details of our land

One of the first things that my brother (the architect) did for us is to utilize the official survey of the land to generate computer images of the layout of the site. The site itself has two main areas: buildable area and wetland (which you cannot build anything on by law). The buildable area is adjacent to the street and consists of roughly 1/3 of the site. The majority of the rest is wetland, and it's just beautiful. The wetland is great because not only does it provide some spectacular views, it really separates the property from any future lots to the East and ensures that we'll always have the views we see today. The wetland is fairly impassable in Summer, as the tall grasses and vegetation reach up to my arms. But in Spring, Fall, and Winter you can actually walk around in there, and I'm sure the kids will love it for "exploring."

Without further adieu, here's the official survey and computer generated images (click any of the images to enlarge):

Images 5 and 6 need a little explaining. We met with my brother over Christmas 2006, just after closing on the land, to establish the "program." The program is the number of rooms in the house, the types of rooms, and their first guess square footage. The program can also include general spatial arrangements of the rooms in relation to each other. Our first pass was "if we could have each room be the size we wanted, independent of cost, what would each be?" After going through that, my brother put the room sizes (shaped as squares and rectangles for now) next to each other so that we could visually see if one was too big in relation to another (image 5, below). This would start the process of cutting down the sizes to something that was more workable. Image 6 shows the rooms laid out on the land, as if the whole house was one story, just to see how it fit on the suggested building site.

The other cool aspect of the computer renderings is that they show site elevations, so you can see how the buildable area is higher than the wetland, and slopes towards the wetland. The suggested building site (called the "pad" area, in gray in image 7, below) is on the North side of the buildable area, and after walking the property with my brother, it is the place that offers the best views. So we'll likely go with the suggested building site as the actual building site. The computer renderings show the suggested building site as perfectly level so that you can see the slope from West to East. Images 7-9 show the computer rendered site elevations:

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Finding our perfect land

As mentioned in a previous post, though Molly and I had eventually realized what we really wanted in a new home, it still didn't seem like something that was within reach due to a number of factors. First there's the monetary factor. In order to build a home, one of course needs to own land on which to build the home, and that land costs money. Though the Lord had blessed us immensely with our current house, we didn't really see how paying our current mortgage while also buying a plot of land could possibly work. Second, there's the availability factor. It seemed to me that land was being snapped up by the day (this was during the boom years of the realty market) and that by the time we could afford land, it would all be gone (at least all of it within 50 miles of the Twin Cities).

We also had just moved to Coon Rapids, MN, to be closer to my place of employment, and more importantly to join as parishioners of the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake. This is a whole other story in itself, but suffice it to say, the Church of St. Paul is, in our humble opinion, the most dynamic Catholic parish in the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis, utterly faithful to the teachings of the Church, and the ideal parish in which to raise children. We were not leaving this parish, and this would take priority over building a house if the two conflicted. We wanted to make sure our priorities were rightly oriented. So, if we were to buy land, it had to be within a reasonable distance of the Church of St. Paul, and preferably not a great deal farther from work so that I didn't significantly increase my commute.

Despite all this, there was an acknowledgment that if the Lord wanted this for our family, our dream of building a home oriented for the family as the "domestic church," and oriented towards fostering virtue and holiness, somehow He would make it happen. We had no interest in building a home for a status symbol, or for lavish living (as if we could afford it), or simply for the sake of building a home. If we were going to build a home, it was going to be specifically because it would truly assist in raising children for the kingdom of heaven, and if this was possible and a worthy goal, the Lord would make it happen. For good measure, through praying a novena we asked St. Joseph, patron saint of homes, to pray for us!

In September of 2006, almost on a whim, and partially out of impatience, I started looking online at available land. I first calculated what I thought we could afford (though I didn't really know what I was doing, in that I thought one bought land with a "mortgage" just like a house) and then set about seeing what was available. I thought that it would be good if we could get at least 1 acre for space for the kids to run around, something a little lacking in our current house. There was not much available in our price range, and the closer to the Twin Cities the lot was, the smaller it got and the more it cost. Over the next few weeks, we drove and looked at lots that were as much as 20-25 miles from Ham Lake, and no where near my place of employment. We were a little dismayed at the possibilities, and what it would mean for family in terms of drive time to visit us, not to mention the drive to church and work.

One thing I am very sure of is that the Lord started giving me lots of ideas of how to make a higher price feasible, and in realizing this, I increased what I thought we could afford. Soon, we found a lot right in Ham Lake, 5 minutes from church, 2.3 acres. We were in love with it! It seemed perfect, a little out of our price range, but we felt we could talk down the owner a little. We made an offer. The offer was rejected, with a counter-offer at the same price (i.e. "pay my price or take a hike"). We actually got into a multiple bidder situation, as someone else was readying an offer and the seller knew he was in a good position. Thank God our offer was rejected! While pondering whether to meet the seller's demands, I asked a few more innocent questions about where the house would go on the lot, and it was discovered that almost 85% of the land was zoned as wetland. Only a small corner of the land was available for building. We rescinded our first offer, and got the heck out of there. Whew!

Still, this was disappointing. To have come so close! The next few weeks were spent trying to find a lot that would replicate what we thought we had, with nothing coming even close. One weekend, Molly was away (a rare event) volunteering on a Twin Cities TEC retreat, and I was going solo with the kids. I decided to take them out looking at a few lots that were somewhat interesting. I planned on visiting four lots, and the first three all royally disappointed. Then I drove to the final lot, actually in Ham Lake, about 5 minutes further from church than the lot we almost bought. I still remember driving up to the lot vividly. I'm a Mechanical Engineer, and a very logical thinker. When all the pieces fall into place, I need no further time for discussion. I took one drive by this lot and immediately pulled over and called our realtor and asked him contact the realtor for the land. This was definitely it, and I wanted to move fast!

To attenuate a long story, after a lot of back and forth with the seller, we signed a purchase agreement. The land is absolutely beautiful! It's 2.6 acres, it's in Ham Lake - 10 minutes from church, and it's right off Lexington Avenue, which is the same thoroughfare on which the company I work for is located (only 5 minutes extra commute, and a lot simpler). God is awesome! We closed on the land in December of 2006.

Here is a satellite image of our land (click the image to view it in larger size):

And here is a link to an updated satellite image in Google maps, with our lot outlined. You can see the houses that have been added since the image above (a couple more homes have been added even since this newer image). The newer image was obviously taken in a different season. Kind of interesting - I didn't think Google updates their satellite images that often.

Pictures of the land from human level will be loaded in an upcoming post. Stay tuned!

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

How did this all get started?

In order to answer this question, I would have to define what "this" is. "This" is what this blog is all about. "This" is thinking differently, perhaps radically differently, about how to construct a new home. As a Catholic, one's goal should be to become a saint; that is, a citizen of the kingdom of heaven. If that's not the goal, then something's wrong, as Fr. John Corapi would say. Further, as a parent, the goal is to raise citizens of the kingdom of heaven, to raise children who will become saints. It's a simple worldview, but when taken seriously, it should transform just about everything in your life, both as an individual and as a parent. So then, why shouldn't this worldview transform the way one thinks about designing a home?

If I go all the way back to the point of first conception, it would probably be when I realized that my younger brother was going to become a professional architect. I remember having conversations with him about how he would design my home some day. My parents built their home, the home I grew up in, and so I was used to this idea of building one's own home. Though I had dreamed of building my own home, this was before I was even married, so it was more for purely selfish reasons. But once I did marry (my beautiful wife Molly), we did kind of make it our own dream to build a house one day. I wasn't sure if it would really work out that my brother would be the architect, but I kept that as the goal.

Then, of course, Molly and I began having children, and the equation changed quite dramatically. Not in terms of the dream to build a house, but in terms of everything. We as parents are responsible for the upbringing of our children, and directly responsible for passing on the faith to them. This is a responsibility that Molly and I have always taken very, very seriously. In this vein, when our eldest daughter, Clara, was just a baby, we made the formal decision to homeschool all of our children in the future. Public school simply wasn't an option for us due to many factors, not excluding basic quality of education (and this is in Minnesota, which has some of the best public schools in the nation). I'm sure you can imagine all the other reasons we did not feel comfortable sending our kids to public schools. Catholic schools were also certainly an option, though if the schools aren't solid enough to properly teach the faith, and if we were going to have to supplement with further Catholic education in the home, then what was the point of spending thousands of dollars on tuition? Beyond this, we fell in love with homeschooling; the flexibility, the superior performance of homeschoolers (see here, and here), the love of learning, the family unity, and the fact that we as parents are our children's teachers! The last is mentioned in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2223:
"Parents have the first responsibility for the education of their children. They bear witness to this responsibility first by creating a home where tenderness, forgiveness, respect, fidelity, and disinterested service are the rule. The home is well suited for education in the virtues. This requires an apprenticeship in self-denial, sound judgment, and self-mastery - the preconditions of all true freedom. Parents should teach their children to subordinate the 'material and instinctual dimensions to interior and spiritual ones.'"
I can't think of a better mode of education that fits these goals, and most importantly, homeschooling fits THE goal, to raise citizens of the kingdom of heaven. Protecting innocence, fostering holiness, it can't be beat.

Now that we had made the decision to homeschool, conversations, when they came up, about someday building our own home changed a little. Molly and I started talking about integrating a homeschool area into a home, or even throughout the home. And the need for a "real" architect seemed more apparent, as we didn't just want a series of rooms with no thought. And what about a house that was designed for the way a family should live? Not the modern ideology of the family as a bunch of individuals, all needing their own separate areas, with limited interaction (hopefully), maximized technology and number of screens (computer, TV, etc.), and no family meals. We wanted to be a family that lives the Catholic faith to the fullest, that prays together, that eats together, that learns together. At some point, I remember thinking that it would be awesome to have a chapel, a real chapel, in our house. Not simply a "prayer room," but a well planned, beautiful space, a place that looked and felt like a chapel. Molly and I incorporated this into our vision, and it kind of spiraled from there.

We arrived at the idea of a radically Catholic home, a home that was fit for the family as the "Church in miniature (Ecclesia domestica)," as John Paul II referred to the family in his Apostolic Exhortation, Familiaris Consortio, on the role of the Christian family in the modern world. The term "Ecclesia domestica" was first used in Vatican II's Lumen Gentium to describe the family, and in turn repeated in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1656:
"In our own time, in a world often alien and even hostile to faith, believing families are of primary importance as centers of living, radiant faith. For this reason the Second Vatican Council, using an ancient expression, calls the family the Ecclesia domestica. It is in the bosom of the family that parents are 'by word and example . . . the first heralds of the faith with regard to their children. They should encourage them in the vocation which is proper to each child, fostering with special care any religious vocation.'"
Such an awesome responsibility! If a well-designed home could contribute to these ends, what a blessing indeed. Still, in many ways this idea of ours was kind of a pipe dream, something we weren't sure could really come to fruition, whether due to monetary reasons, lack of available land, or other reasons. Future posts will go through how we DID eventually acquire the perfect plot of land, through the grace of God, and what has happened since then.

Until then, God bless!

Monday, July 9, 2007

Welcome! - Under Construction

This is the first post of the Ecclesia Domestica blog! There are many people who may be interested in following the progress of our home design and construction, and this is the easiest way to do it (instead of having the same conversation over and over with lots of people). Whenever there's anything new or interesting to report, I'll do it here. Stay tuned and God bless!