Friday, September 28, 2007

The Anti-Homeschooling NEA


The National Education Association (NEA) is THE big organization when it comes to public schooling, made up of more than 3.2 million professional employees that work in and for public schools. Just to illustrate their lobbying power (at least with one party), the following presidential candidates addressed their national meeting in July: Hillary Clinton, John Edwards, Christopher Dodd, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Richardson, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Mike Huckabee. One of the functions of the NEA's annual meeting is to approve their policy platform.

Before displaying the NEA's official stance on homeschooling, let's briefly review the data.

Homeschoolers well outpace public-schooled children in standardized tests across all subjects (click to enlarge):

There's no difference in homeschooler achievement based on whether the parent is a certified teacher or not (click to enlarge):

Level of state regulation of homeschooling has no impact on homeschooler achievement (click to enlarge):
There is no difference in homeschooler achievement based on race or gender (the same cannot be said of public schools, click to enlarge):

Okay, now that we know the data, here's what the NEA just ratified (again) as an official policy statement regarding homeschooling:

B-75. Home Schooling

The National Education Association believes that home schooling programs based on parental choice cannot provide the student with a comprehensive education experience. When home schooling occurs, students enrolled must meet all state curricular requirements, including the taking and passing of assessments to ensure adequate academic progress. Home schooling should be limited to the children of the immediate family, with all expenses being borne by the parents/guardians. Instruction should be by persons who are licensed by the appropriate state education licensure agency, and a curriculum approved by the state department of education should be used. The Association also believes that home-schooled students should not participate in any extracurricular activities in the public schools. The Association further believes that local public school systems should have the authority to determine grade placement and/or credits earned toward graduation for students entering or re-entering the public school setting from a home school setting. (1988, 2006)
The bold is my emphasis. Here's the link to their whole policy statement.

This policy statement can only be described as extremely uneducated (note the irony), and even vitriolic. I think what we have here is an organization that doesn't like the fact that homeschoolers (educated by people who aren't certified teachers) fare better than those they educate, and they don't like the fact that they lose per-pupil funding for each homeschooler that would otherwise be in public school, and so they want to curtail homeschooling. Thank God that states mostly don't listen to the NEA, and those that have are slowly deregulating. Homeschooling is a growing mode of education, much to the NEA's chagrin.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

My weekend at Pacem in Terris


Below I have attached some pics from my weekend at Pacem in Terris, a hermitage in St. Francis, MN (see previous post). I had a wonderful time, and have come back with a whole new appreciation and increased understanding of contemplative prayer. I also have come back completely rested. I ran the numbers... I spent roughly 53 hours at Pacem in Terris, of which 28 were spent sleeping! I haven't been this rested in years. The rest of the hours were spent in prayer, walking the beautiful trails, and in a small amount of reading.

My hermitage, a wonderful little design (I was very excited to be assigned St. Peter, as he is one of my favorite saints)...

A view from the expansive windows, with my food basket next to the rocking chair (bread, cheese, fruit)...

A little "altar" with my Bible and Liturgy of the Hours...

A real tall-grass prairie is part of the grounds...

Walking through the woods (a deer jumped out in front of me once)...
A chair at the end of a long boardwalk out to the lake...
Silence was observed at all times, though some seminarians from the St. Paul Seminary (where my brother is) were there and I saw some of them on the walking paths (only a nod of the head is suggested, in order to maintain silence).

The first word I spoke during the entire weekend were at mass held in the chapel on Sunday morning. What a wonderful place, I will definitely be back!

Monday, September 24, 2007

A little shocked at this article in the New York Times...


I have a Google Reader account, and I have roughly 10-12 blogs that I read via RSS feed (which is how I stay up on lots of different topics in a relatively short amount of surfing time). I subscribe to the New York Times RSS feed of any topic having to do with architecture, just to see if there is anything interesting to learn about, especially anything that would impact our home design. But, imagine my surprise to get the following article in my reader over the weekend while I was away...

A Return to Architectural Traditions

This piece is all about the palpable tide shifting towards to traditionally-rooted architecture for churches across the country. And the Catholic Church isn't even mentioned! I think this is a good thing, because it shows how universal the desire is to correct the errors of the past 50-100 years (the article profiles a Lutheran and an Episcopal congergation that built new churches with traditionally-rooted architecture). Some of the more salient quotes...
The Rev. Laurence A. Gipson, then rector of St. Martin’s, started talking to church members about what they might want in a new building.

“In 300 conversations with people, universally, it was clear,” Mr. Gipson said. “Traditional worship within a traditional building was the thing that enabled us to draw most closely to God."
And this...
“In the mid-20th century, there were liturgical reformers who said it was necessary to change church architecture,” Dr. Kieckhefer said.

“Architects began to design churches that were meant to promote a sense of community gathered for celebration,” he added. “While older churches tried to set themselves apart from the world, these were buildings that were meant to blend into neighborhoods.”

These buildings were focused around casual, multipurpose spaces. Pastors asked architects for assembly halls that would allow members and clergy members to be able to see one another’s faces, so sanctuaries were often arranged in circles or semicircles. Pulpits were moved from the head of the church to the middle or done away with altogether. Statues were removed. Pitched roofs became flat. Steeples vanished.

Critics of the movement saw this trend toward plain, functional buildings as an insult to the divine. A flurry of books by influential architects and critics led the attack, including Michael S. Rose’s salvo, “Ugly as Sin: Why They Changed Our Churches From Sacred Spaces to Meeting Places and How We Can Change Them Back” (Sophia Institute Press, 2001), and Moyra Doorly’s “No Place for God: The Denial of Transcendence in Modern Church Architecture” (Ignatius Press, 2007).
The emphasis in the second to last paragraph is mine. In the last paragraph, the two cited books have both been mentioned on this blog previously, both are by Catholic authors.

I think this article is remarkable because I kept waiting for the "but, so-and-so says this movement towards traditional church architecture is really bad and represents a theme-park-like nostalgia that denies architectural progress..." or something of the sort. But, it never came. And I've said this before on the blog, but to reiterate, I think church architecture is a different case. There are very clear types of architecture that just don't work for worship, and just don't work as a Catholic Church for all the reasons I've mentioned in the past. This doesn't mean one can't innovate, otherwise we'd never have Gothic architecture, or Baroque architecture, or anything new. But that "new" needs to be rooted within the Tradition of the Church. In regard to other types of architecture (non-religious) that is a whole different story for me. I think quite a bit of innovation, use of new technology, etc. can be done there, and I think it's much more dependent on personal taste. There are many great modern buildings which I enjoy, and even prefer. And I think people have the right to create ugly, non-functional buildings now and then, but not ugly, non-functional churches.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Here's where I'll be this weekend...


Starting Friday morning, I'll be at Pacem in Terris, a Christian hermitage retreat center in St. Francis, MN. It's very well connected to our Parish, the Church of St. Paul in Ham Lake, MN, and very Catholic (it was given the Papal blessing by Pope John Paul II in 1992), though certainly there are non-Catholic Christians who retreat there as well. Molly gave me the gift of two nights and three days there for my birthday this past July, and I've been waiting for the hot weather to subside (I hate hot weather, and Fall is my favorite season). I'm definitely one who likes to think, read, and spend time in silence, so this is right up my alley. I can't wait to get there! Each person gets their own private cabin, and you get a daily supply of bread, cheese, fruit, and water. There is no electricity in the cabins, mostly on purpose. The point is to spend time in silence, and in prayer, and to rest and recoup. I'm sure I'll sleep a lot! Have a great weekend...

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Advances in technology and integration with homeschooling


As I mentioned in my last post, we are using Classically-based educational methods to homeschool our children, and those methods are generally not in favor of using "screens" of any kind (such as TV, computers, etc.) as significant educational tools. Children absorb and retain more knowledge when they are actively thinking and reasoning (such as what happens when reading a book) rather than passively absorbing information (such as what happens when watching a TV program or movie). Be that as it may, there are definitely still times when we will use TV or computers to enhance educational experiences (not as substitute). There are too many programs that would be beneficial to educating our children to ignore TV, whether they be about saints lives, the Church, history, science, etc. The same goes for the internet, where there is an incredible amount of resources available to enhance education and teach research skills (though a tight reign will be kept on access to the internet, via passwords or other tools, for obvious reasons - in total I think internet is more dangerous to children's innocence and formation than it is helpful, unless proper controls are put in place).

In regard to the internet, the advent of such a ridiculous amount of information placed at the fingertips of any human being with internet access has fundamentally changed education in my opinion. And, it's hard to predict how new technologies and new uses of the internet will alter education in the future. I would love to have a picture of how we will use the internet in our homeschool 10 years from now, just to see how technology has opened up new opportunities. Below is one such example I recently came across. Watch the video and be amazed...

One can only imagine the possibilities for the technology he used to present an entire newspaper on the screen. Whole encyclopedias could be archived this way, not to mention books and other media (much easier to navigate and read than just computerized text on a screen that you have to scroll through, or click through). And regarding the technology applying people's photos on the internet ( of a specific location and creating a virtual 3D space, awesome! You have got to go to the Microsoft Live Labs page and try this out, it's called "Photosynth" (link here). One of their vitual test environments is St. Peter's in Rome! I loaded the software and was navigating around St. Peter's square, with the ability to see small details since each picture is loaded in its entirety (allowing zooming to fine detail). Every one of the tiny white dots below is a picture of an area of St. Peter's square that has been loaded into the environment and can be accessed by just moving the cursor over the dot. Click the picture to enlarge.
And navigation, zooming, loading, is all completely smooth. The applications to schooling in architecture, art, geography, etc. would be endless. Which is why I'm posting about this. Who knows what new technology will come up next year, or the year after that, or 10 years from now that will radically enhance home education? There's no way to plan for it (or design homeschooling areas for it), but its one of the main reasons I want a computer to be available in our home for education.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Homeschooling: The Trivium and the Classical Method

As you may have seen recently, our eldest daughter Clara just started kindergarten in our homeschool this year, and she is doing great! She is so committed to everything she does, and tells me about her day "in school" as soon as I get home from work. We did homeschool "preschool" with Clara starting when she was three (and are doing so with our oldest son Aidan, who's now three), but this is of course a whole different level of commitment. Now we know that we are formally replacing the role that would have been played by a public or private school starting this year.

In order to plan our homeschool curricula, we have been attending the Minnesota Catholic Home Educators Conference at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN every year for the past two years. This conference is amazing. I have heard that it's the largest Catholic homeschool conference in the country, and I'd believe it because it's huge. Dozens of speakers and a gigantic field house full of homeschooling vendors and resources (almost all of it we'd like to purchase if we could!) adds up to one busy weekend.
It was at this conference a year and a half ago that we made the decision to homeschool in the Classical method. The book pictured to the right, The Well-Trained Mind: A Guide to Classical Education at Home, by Susan Wise Bauer and Jessie Wise, playing a big role in helping us make that decision. Before explaining the Classical method of education, I'll just say that it was a surprise to me to find so many different "methods" of home education once we decided to homeschool. I mostly thought you just did the standard subjects with more depth and attention than a "normal" school (and I think this would accurately describe many homeschools), but didn't realize there were also overarching methods that can drive how those subjects are taught (if one desires an overarching method). There's Montessori, Charlotte Mason, Unit Studies, Unschooling (editorial comment: we're definitely not doing this), Waldorf Education, and on. The Classical method is but one of these choices. For our family, and for me and Molly, the Classical method fit the best by far. We are so impressed and so excited to embark on this educational method and see the tangible results in our children!

A very thorough explanation of the Classical method of homeschooling can be read here, as written by Susan Wise Bauer. One of the key aspects of the Classical method is the Trivium (which is discussed in Susan's article, but another great resource specifically on the Trivium is here). The Trivium is a method of teaching that has developed over centuries, all the way back to ancient Greece. The Trivium is based on observation of the optimal way children learn, meaning in some way it is based how God created us to learn. There are three formal stages of the Trivium (hence the "tri" in "Trivium"):
  • Grammar
  • Logic (sometimes called Dialectic)
  • Rhetoric
These three stages of education span 1st through 12th grades, with grades 1-4 devoted to grammar school, grades 5-8 devoted to logic school, and grades 9-12 devoted to rhetoric school. Here's just a brief comment on each of the three (from the website linked above):

Simply defined, it is the learning of the body of knowledge of a subject, and most classicists would agree that this is best done by memorization. Most of us have been trained to have an aversion to rote memorization, but it is not harmful, and neither does it have to be dull. I would venture to say that no baby had to be forced to learn to talk, but rather he enjoyed the process immensely. In reality, a child begins learning the grammar of things when he is born and continues from there, but in formal education the grammar stage coincides with the elementary years. In terms of cognitive ability, children at this age automatically zero in on the concrete facts. Therefore it is fine at this stage to concentrate on the concrete and leave the analytical and the abstract out of it.
Logic (Dialectic)
The dialectic stage is defined as learning to reason, and the body of knowledge learned in the grammar stage is the stuff learning to reason is practiced on. In the grammar stage children learned facts; in the dialectic stage children try to understand the facts they have learned, and begin to relate those facts to one another in a significant way. This stage coincides with middle or junior high school, although it may actually begin for individual children earlier than that, in 5th or 6th grade. It is in the dialectic that the emphasis in cognitive skills shifts from the concrete to the analytical. This is where children are naturally inclined to ask the question “Why?” This is where they question what they have learned in the grammar stage to see if it is in fact true. Truth holds up very well under examination, and only proves its nature by this process. While not advocating children question the things they were taught, if what they were taught is true, we need have no fear of it being questioned, even if that questioning runs to things such as the existence of God or the veracity of the Word. Therefore teaching the science of logic is critical at this stage.
The last stage is the rhetoric stage, which focuses on learning the science of communication and the art of expression. In the grammar stage children learned facts; in the dialectic stage children began to understand those facts, and in the rhetoric stage children learn to express what they now understand in the most compelling manner possible. This stage roughly coincides with high school. Cognitively speaking, this stage is where abstract thought reaches its zenith. In this stage, the unknown can be explored because the known is understood; the hypothetical can be introduced and grasped with the mind. The mental jump can be made from the natural to the spiritual, from the practical to the theoretical. Self-expression finally comes into its own in the language arts; “hard” sciences and advanced mathematics are more easily mastered; history can be applied to economics and political science; and Bible study can turn to apologetics.
Key for me in deciding with Molly to use Classically-based education in our home were other factors too, such as the fact that "screens" of any kind (whether TV, computer, etc.) are strongly discouraged as educational tools. The Classical method was used to great effect well before the advent of TV or computers; usually reading is a much more interactive way of learning than "screens" which are passive and don't require thought.

I also like the fact that the same or similar information is covered in each 4-year cycle with a different focus. So, if you cycle through World History from ancient times to the present in grades 1-4, focusing on memorization of key facts and events, you start over in grades 5-8 and cover the same periods focusing on why events happened and what their causes were, and you start over again in grades 9-12 and cover the same periods a third time focusing on developing the student's own analytical skills and having the student offer a defense of a certain position regarding an historical event, or have the student do a formal debate on a topic in history. Other subjects are done this way as well, including Math, Science, Literature, Languages (Latin), etc., even following along with World History in each of the other subjects (teaching, for instance, about Newton's laws of motion when discussing Newton's era of history).

There will be more to come on homeschooling topics such as this, but hopefully this provides a good picture of the vision we have for our homeschool and the education of our children.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Draft home design and construction schedule

I'm sure some have wondered about the schedule for this home, such as when will construction start? I wanted to provide some clarity on that, so that if you follow this blog you know what you're getting into :-) Molly and I have been in no hurry to start construction of the home for a number of reasons:
  • The housing market is horrible right now, and we don't have any desire to put our house on the market in the next year;
  • Since my brother has a full-time position, he is doing the home design in his "free-time" and that takes quite a bit longer, and we want to allow this time with no big schedule pressure;
  • Our current home works for our family quite well, and we don't feel the need to rush to get out of there.
Given those reasons, and the fact that since we are a very busy family and would like the time to make as many decisions as we can without being rushed, construction on the home will start in the Spring of 2009. As you may know from viewing my profile (on the right-hand column), I am also completing my Ph.D. in Mechanical Engineering, and my slated finish date is also the Spring of 2009. This may have to be adjusted, and I'm open to pushing it to the Spring of 2010, but at least you get the idea that there's quite a bit of busy-ness to go around. We also wouldn't be surprised, of course, to be expecting our fifth child sometime in 2009. The Lord won't give us anything we can't handle!

Anyway, so here is my draft schedule, which I'm sure is inaccurate in a few as-yet-unknown areas. But, this provides a good starting point for thinking and planning, and allows you to see what we will be blogging about over the course of this endeavor. You'll want to click the schedule below to enlarge it. Try as I might, Blogger will not make a larger picture so that you can just look at it in-line with the text (the graphic designer in me screams at this).

(Click to enlarge)

Any feedback, questions, suggestions are definitely welcome, especially if you have built a house before. If you want to say something like, "You aren't allowing enough time to sell your home," or "Setting up a construction loan will take longer than that," please go right ahead. I'd like to tap the knowledge of the savvy internet community!

Sunday, September 9, 2007

Home of the Future?

The Star Tribune, the newspaper of the city of Minneapolis, recently commissioned a panel of architects, scientists, and designers to predict residential life in a suburb of Minneapolis in the year 2037. Here's a link to the full article and interactive graphics. Their predictions are kind of interesting to consider. Here's a model of the residential development, as conceived by the panel (click to enlarge).

As you can see (and read) the vast majority of the features of the development that are discussed have to do with environmental conservation. Throughout the interactive graphics there's lots of speculation about extra pollution, additional storms and unpredictable weather, carbon trading markets and "carbon points," and on. In order to supply energy in a "greener" manner, these homes all have solar power, tap from a shared geothermal energy source, share hybrid or electric vehicles collectively (no one has a garage or owns their own car), and collect rain water in shared cisterns.

Here's the front and back of a theorized future home in the development...
I have to say, the house is pretty ugly. Hopefully houses don't look like this in 2037, with all sorts of appendages and equipment hanging off the home with virtually no thought to integrating them with the design of the home. I would think even a mediocre architect could make this home more aesthetically appealing. At the very least, that wind turbine sticking up from the top of the roof is hideous.

One of the predictions of the panel is that there won't be any basements (they don't say why), but that a "safe room" in the middle of the home would provide protection in case of a storm. And again, no garages (which I find impossible to believe, given the American fixation with garages), and no personally owned cars since cars would be shared in developments (which I think might be the case for certain people, but probably not the majority). If you want to see the other predictions, go to the link and put your pointer over each of the red dots.

In regard to all of the environmental conservation predictions, I think a lot of them are pretty reasonable and may be accurate. For instance, geothermal heating for homes is already a reality and is being implemented in some new homes, though in my own research it is cost prohibitive at this point (roughly 2 to 3 times the cost of standard heating systems, taking roughly 20 years to recoup your initial investment). Costs will likely come down in the future, making it a more viable option. I don't think all the solar panels will happen; solar has been a viable technology for many years and just doesn't get adopted. People don't understand it, and have biases against it at this point that I think would be very difficult to overcome. Carbon points and carbon trading markets probably will happen (they already exist in Europe), but I think it will be limited to corporations (particularly energy companies) and will not be enforced to individuals.

Where I think things got a little goofy in this endeavor was when the panel went beyond the home designs and tried to predict people of the future. Here's the couple that own the home above...
Emily, 37, is preparing dinner when she receives a video call from her husband, Yaochuan, 29, in Shanghai, China, where he resides. Emily is a recently married Internet bride. Yaochuan sought a wife of child-bearing age in the United States because of the lack of women in China. Emily explains that they are running low on carbon points. The points are carried on the carbon debit card issued to each household. In addition to money, points are subtracted when family members buy high-carbon-emitting goods and services, such as gasoline or airline tickets. The couple don’t have enough for Yaochuan’s flight to Minneapolis unless he’s able to purchase more from a frugal family selling points on the carbon exchange. Yaochuan says he’ll do that. He’ll see her next week. He plans to stay a month, so they can “work” on a pregnancy.

Moving on, here's the shocker (from the perspective of this blog). Keep in mind, the Star Tribune, being a relatively left-leaning paper, isn't exactly friendly to homeschooling and would automatically be skeptical of non-institutionalized education. So here's the panel's prediction of the 12 year-old son living in the home above (trendily named "Levitt," of course)...
Levitt, 12, spent the day with his virtual teacher, or avatar, touring Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris. Afterward, he played skating splatball outdoors with neighborhood friends. Now he’s in his bedroom for a soccer game. His team of North and South American Web friends use devices that sense and display motions in real time, providing the experience and exercise of a real game. School comes to Levitt. The state overhauled education seven years ago to keep pace with students from Asia and India, and to eliminate the monetary and carbon costs of student transportation and school-building operation. Leading the nation, the state determined that it’s every child’s right to have individualized education to nurture his or her strongest assets. State-regulated firms supply the avatars that families choose to guide their children’s education.
Okay, all homeschoolers out there, let's all collectively say "duh!" So this panel is telling me that after all the grief that homeschoolers have been given over the years, after all the fighting that early homeschoolers had to do in the 70's and 80's to secure the rights that all homeschooling families now enjoy today, now we realize that each child would do best with "individualized education"! Maybe society will wake up a little earlier than 2037. That said, you can bet government-sanctioned avatars will be banished from the Catholic homeschooling home.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Salvaging Catholic Artifacts and Antiques


When a Catholic church closes, especially a historic church or older church, what happens to its artistic expressions of the Faith? Its statues, stained glass, altars, etc.? I guess in the worst case they get destroyed or dismantled. However, there are some companies that specialize in acquiring and selling these items to other churches or individuals, hopefully allowing further use in an appropriate setting. I've been wondering about this for some time, given that over the years we may be able to incorporate a few major items (statues or otherwise) into our chapel.

After searching on the internet I have come across a couple online sellers who specialize in salvaged Catholic artifacts and antiques. The first is Fynders Keepers.
This online seller has pretty much anything Catholic you could think of, at least items that would have been in a Catholic church at one point. They have everything from Roman-style light fixtures to confessionals. Prices vary wildly depending on the item (how about $38,000 for this antique Gothic high altar?), but I'm sure there's a good deal or two to be had, especially for modest items like an individual kneeler, or a crucifix. Some notes about the site: it's extremely slow (every picture you see on the front page apparently is totally uncompressed and takes on the order of 30 seconds to load), and they don't just sell Catholic items... there's also some other things they specialize in (for instance, this is probably the one place to go to get a gorgeous monstrance for adoration... and some new hub caps, all in one convenient shopping experience!).

The other online retailer I have come across, which specializes specifically in Catholic items, is King Richard's.
This is a much more professional and easy-to-navigate website. They seem to have at least as wide of a variety of items as Fynders Keepers, but the main drawback is that there are no prices listed for most of the items (so you would have to call to get a price). That seems like kind of a waste of time, especially if you don't even know if you are interested unless you see the price. For instance, they have quite a selection of stations of the cross, many of them quite beautiful, but no price so there's no way to tell if you would even be in the ballpark to purchase.

If you know of any other good options I would love to hear it. A buddy of mine knows a person in Southern Minnesota who does not have an online presence but has a vast array of Catholic items, but I haven't gotten the phone number. I am also interested in good online retailers of new Catholic items. I'd be even more interested (pipedream here) if there is anyone who's willing to donate items (statues, etc.) to, say, a nice Catholic family that's building a house with a chapel in Minnesota :-)

Tuesday, September 4, 2007

The First Day of Kindergarten


Today it began. We had been preparing for this day for years and all at once it was upon us, Clara's first day of Kindergarten. It was just last week that it dawned on me, if we hadn't chosen to homeschool, today, the day after Labor day, we could have been sending Clara off into some unknown world, a classroom filled with new faces led by an adult that we knew very little about. She could have been stepping onto that school bus full of kids, most of them much less innocent than her, while I stood on the side of the road bawling my eyes out, but trying not to let it show. Upon this realization, I breathed a sigh of relief. Of all the fears I have of homeschooling, none could compare to the fear I would have in sending Clara off to school where for several hours each day,for thirteen years, it would be someone other than myself that would be the primary influence in her life. I had determined that even had we found the greatest school on earth, this five-year-old still needed her mother. "Ahh, she's home forever," I thought, (or for at least the next thirteen years or so.) Then suddenly, "Aak! She's home forever!"

We chaotically corralled the children to breakfast amidst the normal shrill screams of Eleanor and the "roars" of Aidan in the face of Lucy, our portly cat. Max did his usual gurgle in the Bumbo seat as Clara dressed in her new school jumper from Mimi, her grandma, and debated about which style of hairdo best suited the outfit she now donned. Dad brought out the holy water, gave blessings to each member of the family, and asked for God's grace upon the new school year. Finally, the interview. Dad pushed "record" on the camcorder and said, "Today is Clara's first day of Kindergarten." No one could see my eyes well with tears as I hid behind the cameraman nursing the baby. Imagine if she had been getting on that bus. We took every imaginable grouping of photos, minus Eleanor who was now in the crib, her tantrum muffled behind closed doors. Finally, when we'd exhausted the battery in our camera, Daddy left for work and it was time to begin our first "real" session of school.

We reviewed the date and the weather, and for Aidan's sake, the alphabet now posted on the kitchen wall. Math went well. Even Aidan quietly did his own work at the little table. (By this time we had tossed a few books in Ella's bed and she had ceased her screams and Max was sleeping soundly in the nursery).

Then came handwriting. Clara has been writing "C-l-a-r-a" for over two years. She's quite proficient in most of her letters. One forgets, however, when it's been over twenty years since she's learned to make her letters, how difficult drawing a "K" can be. But if one's name is Clara Koop, she must learn to make a "K" at some point, no matter how much she might dislike it. "Great job, Clara. You've done a super job with those K's! Let's try it now without the dots." (I have been making three dots vertically on the left and two dots in the same fashion on the right to guide her.) "Noooooo!" she yelled. "I NEED THE DOTS!" I'm sure you can imagine all of the kind and patient words I said to encourage her. After all, it's only the first day of school. It shouldn't be too hard to keep my smile sweet. "Remember, Clara, I'm here to teach you how to make your 'K's'. You can do this."

"You're not my teacher! You're my MOM!"

Eventually, we made it through our first stumbling block. She actually ended up making her own dots and using them to guide her strokes. Fine. It's only Kindergarten. Our poetry lesson went much better. She has an incredible gift for memorization and is developing a knack for performance. (She's obviously got a dramatic edge to her personality. I wonder from whom she acquired this.)

So, on to tomorrow, the second day of Kindergarten. I feel the sting right now. Somehow the first day of college doesn't seem so far off.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Thinking about building a house? Why you should hire an architect...

This post came about from a number of recurring experiences:
  • Discussing our new home with people and having to explain that you don't have to be affluent and independently wealthy to hire an architect
  • Driving anywhere and looking at suburban and exurban home developments
  • Reading about declining home values over the past few months
  • Living bad design (whether at work, at home, on the web, in a book, anywhere)
While the American Institute of Architects doesn't keep figures on the percentage of homes that are custom designed by architects, I'm going to go ahead and guess that it's somewhere in the neighborhood of 2%. It may be even less than this estimate. We all know just by driving around that developers design the vast majority of all newly built homes; you know, you buy a lot in a new development and then pick from a small set of prepared home plans, and hopefully every third or fourth house doesn't look identical. While developers no doubt make up most of the new home construction in America, you also have your custom design/build firms, which will custom design a home for you, but are not architects. These homes typically make up the higher end developments that don't require stock home plans, and usually manifest themselves as larger, more decked-out (better materials and amenities) versions of the same stuff you see in the lower-end developments. Probably with lots of beige. Whether it's stock home plans, or custom design/build, most of suburban America looks like this...

Why is this the way things are? Of course it's because it must be cheaper. After all, we all can't afford some fancy schmancy architect to design our home. In order to allow more people to afford to build a home, you need to cut out the middle man (the architect) and get a catalog of prepared, pre-inspected home plans that people can choose from, which saves money (the fees for the architect). And it's even better if you can have the same company design the development, the home plans, finance the homes, and build the homes, because that streamlines the process and has to result in cost efficiencies. Right?

In my experience, and in my opinion, the answer is "no." Much of what I have written in the preceding paragraph seems to make intuitive sense. But reality is far different. Having a developer provide home plans and serve as builder and financer often can result in cost efficiencies... for the developer. There's no real incentive to pass on cost efficiencies to the consumer buying the home; even in a market-driven economy I think the complexity of the homebuilding process and the uniqueness of each housing situation are confusing enough that developers and builders can reap quite a bit of cost benefits without passing it on to the consumer.

Hiring an architect not only does not need to cost more money, it should in many ways save money. Think of it this way, let's say you have a budget for building a home, and that budget is hypothetically $250,000. You can take that money to a builder or developer, sign on the dotted line, and they will be perfectly happy to provide a home like those in the pictures above. Certainly it suits many people just fine. But, let's say you would like something different, something more in tune with the way you live, more personal (and better designed). Take that same amount, $250,000, and lop off a portion of that for the architect's fee. I guarantee you will get a far better home for the remaining money with the design of an architect than you would get for the full $250,000 for the builder or developer. Not only this but:
  • An architect can monitor your budget with an independent eye from the builder, and ensure you are getting the most from your money, even negotiating better prices
  • An architect's design can reduce energy costs and home maintenance costs, saving you money over the long run
  • An architect can spend time fully developing your ideas, avoiding changes along the way (and each change costs money)
  • An architect can work with you to accommodate various payment methods for their fee, such as a negotiated lump sum that you add into your mortgage, or a payment plan, or any number of different options
  • The value of your home will be instantly higher from the moment construction is finished, giving you more equity
  • A well-designed home, rare as they are, is going to have a higher re-sale value and sell more quickly
Tack all this on to the fact that there are design intangibles that simply can't be accounted for in dollars that add to the livability of the home, such as the use of natural light, the design for the way your family lives, attention to detail, etc.

This would all be a slam dunk if there weren't real impediments to having an architect design your home, but there are. The biggest I can think of is land. Developers make money because they can afford to buy large parcels of land and then turn around and sell it to others. There's a certain amount of capital necessary to secure land that is free of the strings attached to developers, such as going with their home plans or financing. We were able to find a lot in a development that was "open builder" (i.e. we could hire any builder we wanted, there was no connection to the development owner) and "build to suit" (i.e. we could use any home plan we wanted as long as it met the reasonable covenants the neighborhood has and the plans are approved by the neighborhood architecture committee). Obtaining a lot like this allowed having an architect design the home to become a reality.

For more info on architects, go to Or, for some stories on how architects can assist in designing high-quality, affordable homes, see: here, here, and here. Just an example from one of the stories; here's a home an architect designed for a Biloxi, Mississipppi family who lost their home due to Hurricane Katrina. This home cost $115,000 to build!