by Robert Foulkes


The living and dining areas (photo above) blend together to form one expansive room, quite a luxury in a small house. The plate rail serves a transition between vertical 1x6 wainscoting and the OSB panels above.

The southwest corner of Michigan has long been Chicago's Cape Cod, a place where the summer wind is cooler and the water is warmer than in the city. Inter-urban trains and lake steamers once took city dwellers to their summer homes along Lake Michigan's sandy shore, and artists came to live and work. Carl Sandburg wrote his biography of Lincoln on a farm near here.

The era of the highway brought an end to the lake steamers and most of the passenger trains, and the summer cottages fell into disrepair as true summer vacations died with the fifties and sixties. But the area is now experiencing a resurgence as a new generation of Chicago architects is designing summer homes for themselves and clients along the windy bluffs by the lake. In the spring of 1989 Sam Marts, Bob Wolf and I joined this resurgence and began a speculative project to build two nearly identical small houses (1,504 sq. ft. each) in a community along the southern shore of the lake. We called them Dot Houses after Sam's aunt Dot.

Bob and I had worked together for years as carpenters and contractors. Sam designed the Dot houses to take advantage of the skills within the group, and in that sense it was a true collaboration. Sam also worked with Doug Prentice, the head finish carpenter, to work out the finish trim details, and with Rick Edwards, the head Painter, on the color patterns. The collaborative approach meant that all of us had input during construction as to what was practical, desirable and fun.

Speculative site work - Speculative building means that the builders often end up eating unexpected costs, and we had our share of meals on this project. The first problem we encountered was getting the land into legally buildable shape. Just getting the property held this project up for more than a year. The costs of all the time we spent before the backhoe arrived fit under the heading of 'tuition' (money spent to learn a lesson).

The second problem was the need for much more site work than we had planned. The site is one block from the beach and 40 ft. above the level of the lake, but a layer of clay just below the topsoil made the land wet much of the year. I originally thought of the property as wooded, but now I know it was more like a wooded swamp. After a few days of dropping trees and clearing brush, I began to sell firewood to recoup costs and to trade firewood for help with the clearing. When the excavators had finished removing the stumps, the wet topsoil had turned into a thick soup that slipped around the bulldozer blade. To salvage the site, we did what farmers do for their fields - we put in drain tile and ran it to daylight. We also excavated the clay and removed it. My advice: know the site in all seasons.

Other problems related to this project were more or less typical: rain, high subcontract costs, rain, carpenters moving too slowly (which is the same as the contractor underestimating) and more rain.

We built both houses more or less simultaneously, and one sold immediately. The second house... sold the following spring.

We hope you enjoyed this excerpt. If you would like a copy of the complete article on the Dot Houses please e-mail us.

Article courtesy of Fine Homebuilding, The Taunton Press, Newton, Connecticut.

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Chicago, IL 60622

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