Taking the plunge!
Spring Grove couple draws up their own plans, builds new home
Thursday, April 18, 2013 4:14 AM
Jean Ann Tweeten held a heavy three-ring binder, packed with what looked like hundreds of pages. It held the plans for her newly completed home from blueprints to doorknobs. She nodded and glanced toward husband, Harlan, better known as Lonny. "It took more effort than I would have ever guessed," she said.
Spring Grove couple Harlan ‘Lonny’ and Jean Ann Tweeten are enjoying their slab-based, elevated patio, which overlooks the backyard. PHOTOS BY CRAIG MOORHEAD/BLUFF COUNTRY NEWSPAPER GROUP
"First off, you need to decide where you're going to put it," Lonny said. "We really began with looking at lots. We drove around in here (Spring Grove's Bender addition) many different days.
"I had noticed this one right away... being from a farm, I've got a farm field behind us. That land to the east most likely won't be built on as long as we're around."
"That made the decision easier for him," Jean Ann said, "coming from the farm."
Selling the family farm wasn't a snap decision. The Wilmington Township property held a lot of history for the couple. It's where they lived for nearly four decades. It's where they raised four daughters.
"I was born and raised there," Lonny said. "I was fourth generation. That decision didn't come lightly.
"I had a bad driveway to keep clear, and she leaves to work in La Crosse every day. I'm 60+ years old, and I'm getting tired of plowing it," he grinned. "I was getting out of farming anyway, more and more."
Jean Ann agreed, "Finally, it came to the decision that... It's OK when you run the farm, but when the farm runs you it's time to do something about it."
"Our house on the farm needed a lot of work," Lonny added. "It was an old brick house, 100+ years old." Over a period of about six years, the Tweetens warmed to the idea of building a new home.
"The girls would have made the decision if they had wanted to keep the farm and be landowners," Jean Ann said.
"If that was their desire, we were going to build there (in the township)."
At Christmastime in 2011, the family got together and discussed the couple's decision. Jean Ann and Lonny (who drives a bus full-time) were moving to town.
"You have to agree on the layout of the house," Jean Ann said. "We decided to make the house handicapped-accessible, even though we don't need it. This is our retirement home even though we're not retired yet."
"Exactly," Lonny said. "There are no steps here, except to go down to the lower level." The stairways were intentionally made wide enough to accommodate a lift chair, should one ever be needed.
There were endless decisions. "We went around and looked at different homes; to see what we liked and didn't like," Jean Ann said.
A plan gradually came into focus. The couple decided to shy away from cookie-cutter blueprints and design their own open-floor plan house with the help of a general contractor.
"We went to Steve Bauer of Caledonia (Lumber)," Lonny said.
It was a good decision, Jean Ann noted. "He was not afraid to say, 'Jean Ann, you're not going to like that,'" she added with a chuckle. "He was absolutely marvelous to work with."
Lonny agreed. The importance of picking someone who you can trust cannot be over-stressed, he said.
Planning the layout took three to four months. One thing that Bauer told them more than once was, "You don't want to build a house that looks like a pole shed."
Architectural details break up the exterior. There are wide porches on the east and west. A slab-based, elevated patio overlooks the backyard.
"We broke ground in June of 2012," Lonny said.
The home measures 54 ft. by 34 ft. with an attached 36 ft. by 32 ft. garage. The lower level is fully finished with a smaller secondary kitchen, full bath and bedrooms. It can be accessed directly from the garage without entering the house (via a second set of stairs).
Lonny said one reason for that is so he can go directly to the downstairs bath for a shower after work without coming in through the dining room/living room.
"I don't want to tramp into the house dirty," he explained.
The Tweetens incorporated a slew of unique features into their design including a closet over the dining/living area stairway that holds folding chairs and card tables (a Jean Ann original idea). The space would normally be a wasted open vault over the steps.
The wide L-shaped, open floor plan sweeps from kitchen to dining room and over to the living room with no constricting doorways.
"I wanted to be able to be part of the conversation even if I was working in the kitchen," Jean Ann said.
The laundry room is located opposite the garage entry. "She wanted it on the main floor," Lonny said.
There are recessed lights in ceilings, hidden behind cabinet trim, even beside the master stairway. Some areas use unseen rope lighting. The effect rids the spaces of glare, casting a warm, efficient glow. Larger, boxed-in recessed ceiling areas hold overhead lights/fans.
"It just breaks up the vastness of the ceiling," Lonny said. "We didn't want a cathedral ceiling. We've been in a couple of homes that have that, and when you get a lot of people in there, it can be pretty loud, noisy."
A curio display is recessed into a wall where the kitchen transitions into the dining area.
The home is designed specifically for entertaining. Children and grandchildren are always welcome, and with four bedrooms and three baths, there's plenty of space.
Striding into the living room, Lonny gestured toward the gas fireplace. "It's real cozy on a cold night."
There's another on the lower level. "We didn't want the mess that a wood fireplace might make," he added.
Windows incorporate slender shades sealed between glass panes. They'll never be exposed to dust. The retirement home aspect is an intentional choice. Low maintenance throughout and ease of access predominates.
Entering the lower level, a gaming console sits along the far wall in the entertainment zone. The secondary kitchen is opposite that space. A roomy bath with handicapped-accessible shower and bedrooms branch off from the core area.
"Our grandkids love it down here," Lonny said. Jean Ann said the space should tend to stay naturally cool in the summer. In cold weather, electric baseboard heat takes over.
"We went from a tight, cramped farm house to all this space," Lonny said with a smile. At the time, the couple had only lived in their new home for a few weeks. Getting used to the openness of the design will take some time.
The experience of designing your own home teaches some lessons.
First, it's a lot of work.
"You don't want to do too much at one time," Lonny said. "It gets overwhelming."
Allowing sufficient time to pick out a myriad of details such as lighting and plumbing fixtures, cabinetry, flooring and so forth, will take hours and often involves travel to showrooms if a homeowner wants to preview items in person.
Secondly, make sure you pick a contractor who will keep lines of communication open, especially between subcontractors.
Example: when the upstairs kitchen island was shifted on the plans to make access better from all sides, the electrician needed to be kept in the loop. Otherwise, the overhead lighting fixtures could have been poorly located.
Good subcontractors will not only communicate with each other and the general contractor "in charge," but will freely share thoughts with the homeowner.
"The homeowner needs to come and look in on the construction on a very regular basis," Lonny advised.
"There are things that you and I changed," Jean Ann said. "There were times when we came in and said, 'No, I don't like that, rip it out.'"
Lonny agreed. "Sometimes you might be told 'This is where this is going to go,' and you say, "No, I don't think so.' The flip side is sometimes the contractor might tell you, 'This really isn't going to work,' when they come to put it in."
"It's a two-way street. You've got to be open-minded. But, it was kind of fun doing it, the planning stages."
Looking back, Lonny added, "Jean Ann moved into a home that three other women from earlier generations had been in and tweaked to their own individual liking. Now, she's finally had a chance to have her own (home). She got to make her own choices."
"So far, we're real happy with it."