“You’re not doing what I asked!” he yelled. “Of course! If I did what you asked, it’d be all crooked!” I responded.
“Just hold the ends with both hands straight out and keep it tight,” he commanded.
“But you weren’t. And that’s why this part is all f—‘d up!”
“Fine! I’ll just hold it here and wait for the next tip from Mr. Micromanagement!”
We were applying underlayment on the roof on a sweltering day in September. Most of our arguments and unforgiving statements tend to happen when the weather is also unforgiving. Though I tried desperately to pay attention to keeping the underlayment from sticking to itself, I was hurt, and couldn’t help but imagine other couples in situations like ours.
Do they argue as much as we do? Have they put as many tears into their homesteads as I have? Is it just our contrasting personality types that makes this project so difficult? Are there couples out there who live off grid, in sub-optimal conditions, trying to build their lives and homes, quite literally from the ground up? Do these couples even exist?
I wanted to explore this unique dynamic of the intimate relationship and building a home together. Not a conventional home. I wanted to know how the added risk-of-the-unknown of unconventional building made couples respond. How does building in uncharted territory, typically outside of building codes add to the already daunting task of being married? Ask any couple, married or not, and they’ll tell you that relationships are, just like building a home: hard work.
So, I put together a survey asking couples (local friends and some in the natural building community) some questions I thought would be insightful to myself and to others who are literally in the trenches of building an unconventional home, or even those who are just thinking about jumping in to an endeavor like this, hence the subtitle, “So you want to Build a House with your Spouse?”
The following could be thought of as a primer for building an unconventional home with your partner.
First of all, here are the requirements for building with your spouse:
Communication is a must! Obviously, you have to collaborate on what you want the project to look like. But less obviously, you’ll need to communicate a lot along the way. You may find that your partner knows absolutely nothing about leveling and perhaps needs a little explanation. You may find that while you had a clear vision of the entrance-way, your partner had something completely different in mind.
You also have to have a system for communicating when you can’t hear or see each other. One of the things I loathe doing is directing large equipment with hand signals. Aaron drives the tractor but has limited view because of the bucket. I have to stand where he can see me and use a variety of hand signals, which I’m sure he made up (we’re not certified construction workers, here) and be confident in directing the huge machine to the necessary place. This is extremely frustrating for both of us, nearly every time. In one of my favorite books about building, A Place of My Own, Michael Pollan points to some scientific research that proves that women have a harder time moving objects in space. A little vindication for my female companions out there.
And then sometimes, you’ll get in a disagreement about something, even when communication is going really well, and you have to wait it out, for the sake of the project. Cement, mortar, and wet paint are all time-sensitive materials that won’t tolerate being patient for an argument between humans. One survey respondent, Corrine, at Wolf Den Farm, reveals about working with her husband, “If you are in the middle of a step or project, you just have to bottle it up and save it for later to try to hash it out.” For those of you who like to get to the bottom of an important problem before moving onto the next one, this reality may try your patience.
Speaking of Patience, there are times when we need to be patient and wait for the weather to cooperate, for the supplies to come in stock at the hardware store, for a vehicle to become available for borrowing, or for an expert’s opinion on some aspect of our proposed plan of action. We also have to practice patience with each other. Every respondent mentioned something about patience, usually that this project enhanced their ability to access it. One half of your duo may not understand a particular concept. You may have an entirely different technique for using a tool that your partner doesn’t see the value of, or simply, a different way of doing things. We come from diverse backgrounds and one person’s way may not be the correct, or most efficient way. Be patient; listen to your partner and try to see it from their point of view.
Empathy: That brings me to my next point, which is never to make fun of your partner’s lack of experience, muscle, or inability to comprehend some building concept. Chances are, you didn’t get a degree in earthbag building or straw-bale construction. Neither did your partner. Generally speaking, most couples come into this field with little to no experience. No matter how much research we conduct on these unconventional construction types, we are not experts until we’ve actually done this multiple times. You must understand that if your partner’s feelings are hurt, the building process may be delayed, or tasks will be completed improperly. Empathy and compassion will go a long way in preventing this.
Planning: This must be done together. We bring different ideas to the table, we expound on them, make opinions and adjustments, and then make rational decisions for how to implement them. I wouldn’t dare let my husband design the kitchen; my abode, my office, my sanctuary, and I don’t expect for him to like my ideas about his greenhouse area, which will likely be a place he spends a significant amount of time. But we still hear each other out and work through these ideas together.
Also, things change. We started our build with the idea of domes. We would get up to a certain point on the wall and then each bag would come in a pre-calculated amount until the walls converged to a peak. However, we also wanted tall windows, so after realizing that the inward movement of the walls would create windows that jutted out ridiculously far, we decided to go with straight walls all the way up to a compression ring and then a roof of some kind. For the longest time after this decision, we still couldn’t stop calling the rooms ‘domes.’ There is a certain amount of flexibility, spontaneity, and improvisation required in this type of construction. Make plans, but be flexible enough to alter them.
As part of planning, many couples like to set goals and figure out a timeframe. In the survey, most couples mentioned unrealistic deadlines as one of the worst parts about working with their spouse. This is one thing we never did. Of course, we haven’t completed our build, 3 years in, but we also haven’t stressed about the pressure of working under a timeline. For some couples, these timelines and goals will be necessary. For others, they will only cause stress. Try a small project first, such as building a doghouse or chicken coop together and put a deadline on it. See what works best for you.
Finally, lighten up! As with so much of life, being positive is super important when working with your partner. I used to work under a manager who never smiled and always saw the worst in people and situations. Her favorite words were the sarcastic “Oh great.” And then she’d expound upon the worst possible scenario of every circumstance. Don’t be a Negative Nancy! When it’s a million degrees and we’re working in the sun, I try to allow myself one complaint. I can only say, “It’s hot as balls!” one time per day. By focusing on the negatives of the project, we only make the work harder.
Take a break. When you’re doing the same monotonous task day in and day out, your relationship will not be the idyllic romantic getaway it once was. Jenna, our local earthbag-building friend explained, “Sometimes I feel really dull about our relationship…like how exciting would it be not to be throwing cans of dirt to Drew all day. This is the ultimate metaphor for an old married couple: just throwing cans back and forth all day. How are we supposed to keep our relationship passionate when that’s literally all we do…” This is why we try to have different tasks for different kinds of days. The day after a rain is good for landscaping, when the earth is softened. Cold windy days are good for research inside. Miserable hot days require some reading in the shade. And for every 3-4 days we find ourselves getting overwhelmingly tired, we take a day of physical rest. We plan, go run errands, visit friends, or find something to break up the monotony.
Working together with your partner requires some levity. Laugh at mistakes made together. Tell jokes to lighten bad moods in unfavorable working conditions. Crank up the music! A good tip of advice: At the end of each day, look at what you’ve accomplished. Write these accomplishments down somewhere if need be. Your emphasis on the positive will push you to do more. Express to your partner that you’ve done these feats together and always revel in your accomplishments, together. Celebrate together.
What is the best part about working with your partner?
Spending time together was the number 1 reason by survey respondents. I’d like to add that my favorite time when working with my husband is when we are creatively discussing and envisioning the future. We agree on things like the cabinets will go along here, and this step will have a drawer in the front of it, etc. We don’t agree on everything, but we do have a really similar vision for the final product and we tend to surprise each other frequently with great ideas.
Jenna says, “I’m living a lifestyle that celebrates my true nature and human experience, rather than avoiding it or keeping myself occupied with busy work.”
What is the worst part about working with your partner?
Many of us said that personality differences made for the most uncomfortable building experiences. I’m an INFP (Meyer’s Briggs) and an Upholder (Rubin Tendencies), and he’s an ENTJ and a rebel. We are literally on the opposite sides of the personality spectrum.
Other builders mentioned; doubting their own abilities, feeling defeated, power dynamics, the actual physical labor (particularly if one partner can’t contribute as much due to health or age) and having different creative visions.
My favorite take-away from this survey is that couples overwhelmingly said that building together has strengthened their relationships as well as contributed to their personal growth. This happened specifically through; building self-confidence, working on patience and delayed gratification, and getting to know their partner’s strengths and vulnerabilities. Building a home with your partner can be very empowering for both you and your relationship! Who knew?
“Personally, this build helped me grow as a person. My strength improved, my patience lasted longer and I learned to be more flexible when met with a challenge.” ~Jim, of Jim and Robin, earthbag builders in Northern Arizona.
A collection of helpful tips:
“Start! You’ll never be 100% ready and you don’t need the paint before the foundation. Drive some stakes and mark it out. Over-planning can delay a project for years. When you mark it out on the ground there is a good chance you’ll want to change it.” ~Aaron
“Have a good solid plan to start out with but be willing to adapt and change the plan as you go. Don’t get stuck in your own vision of how it should be.” ~Drew
“Beware of the bad times. I don’t mean avoid working on days when you feel grumpy, but just being aware that the circumstances may make for a stressful work day. Sometimes being able to notice why you and your partner are going at each other’s throats is a signal to you to turn on your patience and compassion meter. When it’s hot, you’re “hangry,” tired, and maybe you’re holding on to some bit of ego about a procedure, you’re more likely to lose your shit. Learn to recognize these signals in yourself and your partner.” ~Alison, the author
“Know your partner! Take some personality tests, unless you find them to be trivial and irrelevant, of course. My husband and I have very different feelings about these. Otherwise, spend time together. You’ll be better prepared for the hard times ahead.” ~Alison, the author
“Talk about spending and finances. Double or triple your estimate of how much time and money you will need for the project. Do not count on your friends to help you build. If possible, build somewhere you both have good community/family support and good backup plans. I have heard stories about couples separating when one of them is more committed to the project than the other or when one wants to move back to the city for grad school or to be closer to family or to feel like part of the loop again.” ~Jenna
“At the end of the day, remember that you are in this together. Don’t take the frustrations and arguments personally. Don’t go to bed mad at each other.” ~Dave
“When your partner just doesn’t seem to get it. Relax. It probably looks totally different from over there.” ~Aaron
“Never start feeling 100% prepared because chances are, you are not.” ~Corrine
“Think long and hard about your commitment to land/region/community and your partner before you buy anything or start building. Don’t be ashamed to cut some corners, like using some concrete or a front-loader, if it makes the project more manageable. I know we all want to be eco-friendly, but I like to believe we are already making a huge impact by demonstrating a lifestyle alternative to the housing-industrial complex. We’re so small. I don’t believe it makes a difference in the long run what my little house is made of. The biggest impact we can make is by challenging capitalist lifestyle standards and showing that it can be worthwhile and fun.” ~Jenna
“It’s your dream. Don’t expect your friends to achieve it for you.” ~Aaron
“When in doubt, watch the Bachelor together.” ~Jenna
Study on women and moving objects in space from Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own http://michaelpollan.com/reviews/a-place-of-my-own/
Myer’s Briggs Personality Typing http://www.myersbriggs.org/my-mbti-personality-type/mbti-basics/
Rubin Tendencies: Gretchen Rubin’s ideas on personality, particularly in relation to our expectations. Link to Quiz
Survey Respondents mentioned in this post:
David and Raine Burklin northeast Okahoma www.earthbaghome.com
Daniel and Corrine Baker, north Georgia Instagram: @offgridmama Twitter: @corrinebaker928
Jenna Mozingo and Drew Barrett, central Oklahoma www.knowingmother.com
Jim and Robin Grieco, northern Arizona
Alison and Aaron Potter, southwest Oklahoma www.home-farm.org Facebook: Earthbag Build Oklahoma, Instagram: @holistically_organized_me_farm
And lastly, a poem to sum up my feelings on this topic:
Share the Work
We share the work of wood and dirt each day.
From sun up with shovels and hammers,
To sundown with wheelbarrows and tampers.
The life we’ve chosen is no small feat,
Enduring the heat,
Standing hard and fast against the cold wind,
Going against the grain and convention.
To yell and make up,
To not give up.
Blood, sweat, and tears for over three years.
Through the discomfort and hurt,
This fortress of dirt
Has more than fortified our core;
Our relationship is so much more.
How marvelous it is to create!
A home is a place to cultivate
And grow our family culture.
To nurture all of us together.
We share the work of partnership
On this long, strange and dirty trip.
To listen, to accept and forgive,
To remember that how we live
Is like Gandhi said to be;
To be the change you wish to see.
It is equal parts learning how to build
And how to build each other.
And so, we share the work.