After fire, couple has dream of sustainability

Loss of rental home, red tape doesn't deter family

By Patty Hastings, Columbian breaking news reporter

Published:

 

To an outsider, the dilapidated farmhouse looks cold, uninviting. But, to Patricia Kent, 29, and her fiancé, Dillon Haggerty, also 29, it’s the literal framework for a dream home where they envision sitting around a dinner table, eating food they grow themselves on the property’s 7 acres.

After their rental home burned down about 1½ years ago, the couple found their “diamond in the rough, rough, rough,” as they call it, setting in place an ambitious plan for permaculture, building and living off the land. They recently moved into a travel trailer on the property in east Clark County, where they’re living with their two young kids while they toil away at improving a house originally built in 1949.

The dream — and the fury to see it through — was sparked on the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2012, when they lost everything.

Attic fire

For two years, Patricia and Dillon lived in a rental home on about a quarter acre in Vancouver’s North Image neighborhood. They had no plans to leave and were growing produce on the property that they sold to New Seasons through their business, Delish Farms. They had recently planted their fall crops. In the bedroom, Patricia gave birth to their son Quintin, who’s now 2 years old.

“We built our family there,” she said.

That fateful Friday afternoon in 2012, Dillon left the house with Quintin to meet up with Patricia, who was ending her work shift at Tommy O’s, back when the east Vancouver location was still in business. She took Quintin and stopped to get a milkshake on her way home, while Dillon started his shift at Tommy O’s.

Flames were through the back of the house and working their way up the roof when Patricia pulled up to the house minutes later. One neighbor was spraying down the house with a garden hose. Another called the restaurant to alert Dillon, who rushed home.

What had gone wrong in such a short time?

Firefighters tore sheetrock from the ceiling and roofing material to get to the fire. They sprayed water through the roof, Patricia recalled.

“Probably the first time I ever saw Dillon cry is when our house was burning down,” she said.

The charred remnants of the rental house have since been torn down, replaced by new construction built in 2013. Investigators still aren’t sure exactly what caused the fire.

“You can’t help but feel lost all of sudden,” Dillon said. “You don’t know what’s next at that point. What do you do?”

They had insurance but learned that the cost of salvaging their belongings outpaced the cost of replacing them. Everything they kept, including Quintin’s crib, smelled of smoke.

A few days after the fire, Tommy O’s held a fundraiser for the family to help them try to recoup their loss. It was there that their friend Dominick Presto serenaded the couple with “Love Song” by 311. After they slow danced in the middle of the restaurant, Dillon thanked everyone for coming — and proposed to Patricia.

“We lost everything, and now we know what’s valuable to us is living,” Patricia said. “This picture of our life is crazy, but one day at a time … we’re normal,”

At the time, the family was living out of a hotel room and trying to figure out their next step. They rented a furnished house for several months but yearned for a place to call their own, and that’s when they decided to turn ashes into action.

Complications arise

The farmhouse off Northeast 58th Street in east Clark County hasn’t been lived in for seven years, and it shows. Property records list the house as being badly worn. The couple had to replace the septic tank and dig a deeper well before the lender would approve the house.

Then came the complications with county code. The seven acres were zoned as a rural 5-acre lot, making the lot illegal. Patricia and Dillon worked with the Clark County Prosecutor’s Office to legalize the lot.

Patricia acknowledged that they knowingly dived into a difficult life and situation because the end result was so valuable to them. Though the property cost $160,000, they were approved for a $320,000 loan on which to build their new home.

In June, they moved out of the rental house, bought a travel trailer, and lived inside it on Dillon’s mother’s property in Salmon Creek. That same month, Tommy O’s in east Vancouver closed, so Dillon started working at the downtown location.

Everything happened in a flash.

“Our one-day-at-a-time motto has become a very serious motto,” Patricia said.

The next month, well into her pregnancy with her second child, Patricia had to change jobs again and started working at Cotton Babies, where she earned less income than she had as a restaurant server. With the change in jobs, the bank demanded that she show proof of income for 90 days.

She gave birth to Cadence in a tent by their trailer. Luckily, she wasn’t scheduled to work that day.

Nine days after her birth, Patricia returned to work with Cadence in a baby carrier to ensure they didn’t lose the home they had worked so hard to get. She had to show the bank her paycheck from her new place of employment, working 30 hours each week for 90 days to appease the bank.

Patricia said customers thought she was crazy for returning to work so quickly.

The experience, she said, made Cadence an easygoing baby who’s accustomed to chatter and having lots of people around.

She’s also used to living in tight quarters. Being in a trailer means the family has to be organized and inventive. They scaled back Quintin’s toys, keeping only those that work in a small space.

Now that they’re out on acreage, though, Quintin’s more likely to splash in the puddles and run around the yard than fiddle with playthings. Much to his parents’ dismay, he loved throwing pinecones in the foundation of the home’s add-on that hadn’t been filled with concrete yet.

Dream of sustainable living

Their vision for a sustainably built house that uses some of the material available on the land itself has been turned down by many contractors, and not all green-living practices used in other counties are adopted into Clark County building code.

Eventually, they found Communitecture Architecture, an architecture firm out of Portland. They designed the house, and Chuck Dougherty of Form Studio in Vancouver will build the house.

They stripped the house down to its frame. The blueprints are stapled on the wall in the kitchen, which will actually someday be the master bedroom. They plan to restructure the house’s layout, adding a front door that faces Northeast 58th Street.

They dream of slip-straw walls and earthen floors made from a mixture of clay, straw and natural dyes. The moulding and baseboards will be made with glass-bottle bottoms they’ve been saving. An elm tree cut down on the property will someday become their countertops. They want shelving, bunk beds and seating built into the walls. The rest of the furniture, they hope to build themselves.

Natural building comes with more hoops to jump through, but the couple wants something that will last a long time, so they don’t mind pushing through the difficult times.

“Life is too short to keep dredging on,” Patricia said.

Throughout the process, they would like to hold workshops to teach other people to build green, using local and nontoxic materials as much as possible.

They want to commit to as many economically friendly building practices as they can that reflect their sustainable, organic gardening practices. Someday, Patricia said, they aim to have 30 to 90 varieties of vegetables on their property. Fruit trees that already line the driveway were planted last month.

“We just want to grow vegetables and feed people and make them happy,” Patricia said.

Since they’re adding square footage to the 672-square-foot house, they won’t get energy efficiency rebates for all of the sustainable-building practices they’re planning. Anytime they go over budget during the building process, the expense comes out of their pockets.

It’s fun to collect cute ideas, but actually seeing them through takes work, Patricia said. “I don’t think we would have pushed so hard without the fire.”

When it’s all done, they’ll have 1,164 square feet and three bedrooms.

Someday, they want to get married under an archway on the back corner of the property where there’s a line of trees. But first, they’ll need that front door.

Homeless to homeowners