Dan Wittenberg bought about 13 acres of land in the Potomac River flood zone because of his love of sailing and windsurfing. Eight years ago, with no special real estate or construction skills, Wittenberg built an 800-square-foot cottage there (the maximum permissible on that 566,000 square foot lot). Now he’ll chronicle his attempt to build something special that will pass regulators’ muster on a just-purchased one-third of an acre waterfront parcel next door. This is his second installment.
Perhaps there really is something to “crowd sourcing.” My recent column generated 59 comments and produced scores of interesting ideas and just a smattering of gratuitous insults.
The “ready-made” school of thought gave suggestions ranging from pitching tents and parking RVs on the lot to mooring house boats and dry-docking cabin cruisers there. More construction-minded readers proposed everything from the building of pole and stilt houses onshore (equipped with incinerating toilets called Destroilets — which may be worth buying just for the name) to the spudding of barges and sinking of submersible cottages offshore. The concept of pontoon houses was floated somewhere in between. One Utopian faction even urged the establishment of a kiteboarding commune.
Obviously, harnessing all this collective genius and putting it to practical use will require a bit more executive direction from the guy who’ll ultimately be paying the bills — me.
I’m not talking about reprising Thoreau’s “do-it-yourself” waterfront cabin from “Walden Pond” down there. As someone who flunked middle school shop class and could be indeed called “the least handy guy in Washington,” I know my own parameters too well to even attempt that sort of heroic carpentry.
Besides, I’m much more interested in creating a template for “do-able” construction by actual tradesmen than in trying to become one myself — even 170 years ago after Thoreau’s feat of single-handedly crafting his rough 10- by 15-foot shanty was a jaw-dropping enough anachronism to be worthy of a best seller. And there’s a good reason for that. Building is, and always has been, a complex operation requiring several different and highly specialized sets of skills (not to mention tools).
Almost from the day he moved out of his cave, man has been hiring teams of skilled craftsmen to build his houses. Carpenters, stone masons, brickmakers and architects were already around for thousands of years before the Bible started giving them publicity. Classical economic theory practically dictates the advantages of just such a “division of labor” and I don’t have the skills, inclination or ego to challenge that time-honored arrangement by usurping any of those ancient occupations — with two exceptions.
That would be architect and general contractor. An architect is the artist who charges about 10 to 15 percent of the total cost of the job to design a house and a general contractor is the middle man who’ll provide and coordinate the necessary skilled labor needed to build it for roughly a 20 percent mark-up.
The creative role of an architect and the executive function of a general contractor are both tasks that I not only want to handle myself but (with the help of the Internet and inexpensive software) actually can. Not only does it save me about one-third overall but I get to keep full control over both the design aspect of the house (which is the fun part) and the purse strings (the concomitant necessary evil). Just like Henry David Thoreau, I’ll be counting every nickel spent (even while philosophizing about it) so that we do know exactly what it all costs.
I have no particular qualifications that would give me any sort of comparative advantage in taking over those two key positions. I’m not a real estate professional of any kind; not a developer, a speculator, an investor, or even a broker. Nor am I a builder, carpenter, mason, plumber, electrician, HVAC, roofer, floorer, drywall hanger, painter, excavator, insulator, hod carrier or any other associated building trade.
Like most of you, I’m a cubicle rat with a regular desk job (which, by the way, is not as a writer) living what Thoreau would call my “life of quiet desperation” without benefit of either a pick-up truck or a chain saw. What I have is perspicacity, a laptop, and, hopefully, a vast readership of interested consultants like yourselves.
Thoreau built his simple rectangular box out of lumber harvested from the surrounding woods. While that may epitomize the concepts of “locally grown” and “green building materials” all in one fell (or in that case, “felled”) swoop, that’s not an option here. Chopping down trees isn’t allowed (under penalty of incarceration) in either the Critical Area or the Non-Tidal Wetlands Buffer Zone. I’m willing to consider any design made out of any material whatsoever as long as it captures the stunning views, is functional for recreational use (at least during the warmer months), is thoroughly flood and wind resistant and complies with the lot’s many administrative restrictions.
Thoreau didn’t have to worry about either bureaucracy or building codes on his project (particularly since he happened to be squatting on the land) but I do. Whether we ultimately end up with a geodesic dome, polyurethane yurt, Mendocino water tower, lighthouse, windmill, “spaceship home,” shipping container habitat, tiki hut or something else, we’re going to have to make sure that whatever it is will be “up to code” and “within statute.” In the next installment, we’ll examine what those major constraints are.
But progress is being made. I just received approval of my “lot consolidation agreement” (application fee: $70) without which I couldn’t even apply for any permits. My parcel is comprised of two separate subdivided lots but only one had a “transferrable development right” (TDR). As a TDR is a prerequisite for any development in St. Mary’s County, I had to legally combine the two lots so that a single TDR would cover the entire parcel.
My seller had “stripped” one TDR from the property prior to selling it to me since a TDR is valuable in its own right even without the land that it attaches to. There are only a limited number of these TDRs and they can be applied to any property within the county. Someone building a shopping center will need a whole lot more TDRs than his parcel of land has, hence there is a thriving market in the buying and selling of these TDRs. It is St. Mary’s County’s very own bitcoin — and it has a fluctuating price tag.