After toiling for a year, Patricia Kent and Dillon Haggerty have a warm home that they crafted with their own hands. Sure, their hands were stapled, hammered and cut in the process, but those were the battle wounds from going after something that they deeply wanted.
“Some days you never thought you would get mud out of your fingernails. It was just there, permanently,” Haggerty said.
The bright green house in east Vancouver is far removed from the old, dilapidated farmhouse that once stood in its place. It wasn’t always easy for a young, engaged couple with two children to put it together, and plans were revised again and again, but the family finally got four walls of their own.
“Turning 30 knowing my house is done is definitely comforting,” Kent said.
The couple celebrated Kent’s birthday and their new home Thursday night with friends, relatives, Realtors and workers who were part of the process. It was the big unveil after a fire burned down their former, rental home nearly 2½ years ago.
“In a moment’s notice everything you have can be gone,” Kent said. “But it is the people that are in your life, the family that you have, the connections that you make, the real time you that spend building that life — that’s what really feels like living.”
Buying the 7-acre property set in motion ambitious plans for permaculture, building, working and living off the land. Someday the couple will sell produce grown on site through their business, Delish Farms, which has been on hold since the fire.
Most of the house was done by Kent and Haggerty using natural building practices and recycled materials. The walls are filled with a straw-clay mixture and coated in a thick earthen plaster. The backsplash in the kitchen is made with tile and scrap wood. Shelving that hangs from the kitchen ceiling was made with cabinet shelves from the original house.
The home has an indoor-outdoor feel to it, with wood detailing throughout and river rocks plastered into the floor. Some of the building supplies were donated by friends and strangers.
“We really tried to find ways to be creative to reuse whatever we possibly could that was already here. I think it’s provided a great history for the family who owned the property,” Haggerty said. “Knowing that I did it myself, I can point out each little thing and why it ended up being that way.”
Throughout the house are loft spaces, including one next to the kitchen that doubles as a guest bedroom. Built-in cubbies in the bathroom hold soaps and washcloths. Kent also built wide windowsills that could hold books or double as seating.
“I tried to think of things that were practical,” she said.
Carolyn Walz, who was the home seller’s real estate agent, thought nobody would want to live in the old farmhouse, which had been vacant for years. It was infested with black mold and soaking wet from being exposed to the elements. The value, she said, was in the 7 acres of land.
“It’s hard to finance land when there’s an old house on it,” she said.
But the couple considered the affordable, farmable plot of land a good find. Walz said they were patient despite going through a lot of red tape.
“It was just a really old 1945 house,” Kent said. “At first, we just wanted to take the whole structure down.”
After stripping the house down to its frame and foundation, they set to work adding square footage and restructuring the layout. What was once the kitchen is now the master bedroom. The back door used to be the front door.
It took exactly a year from when the couple closed on the home to when they got the final home inspection on New Year’s Eve. A lot of hiccups happened during the year.
Haggerty had a meltdown in the Lowe’s parking lot while picking up lumber, and Kent shared an emotional outburst with a friend, Rick Haley, who helped finish the house. At times, they thought they were crazy for taking on such a big, complex project.
“You knew the whole time there was light at the end of the tunnel. The tunnel was getting longer, but there was always light at the end,” Haggerty said. “We all want something permanent. We all want something comfortable. We didn’t have any of that yet. That was the drive.”
Packing the walls with a mixture of straw and clay took four months, much longer than they thought it would take, and then they were covered in an earthen plaster. It was manual labor on top of raising two kids and working physically demanding jobs at restaurants. All the while, they were living in an RV camper on the property next to the detached garage.
“There were a lot of discouraging points. It got so daunting,” said Haggerty’s father, Padraic Haggerty. “No matter where we were, no matter what we got done, it seemed like it could never get done.”
The family also did their own electrical wiring, a time- and research-intensive project. Still, they got to make things their way. Light switches and outlets are higher off the ground than they are in traditional homes, Kent said, making them safer for their two young children, Cadence and Quintin.
“You don’t know what you can do until you do it,” Haggerty said.
The couple read a lot of books and experienced plenty of trial and error to move through projects. As they built, they came across new ideas and became more and more confident that they could make those ideas become reality.
For two years, Kent and Haggerty lived in a rental home on about a quarter-acre in Vancouver’s North Image neighborhood. They were growing produce on the property that they sold to New Seasons, and they had no plans to move out.
“We kind of always held back. After the fire, we didn’t have anything to lose,” Haggerty said.
Kent came home from work on the afternoon of Sept. 7, 2012, to find the house ablaze, and a neighbor attempting to douse the flames with a garden hose. The cause of the fire remains undetermined, and the burnt structure has since been replaced with new construction.
“After losing everything we had inside and watching someone else’s house get to be rebuilt, we had to figure out where to go from there,” Kent said. “For us, that was the last kick in the butt.”
There were hotel stays, as well as a stint in another rental property, but nothing felt like their own and insurance money was running out.
“We started searching and did whatever we could to find something. And it was definitely not easy, but we found this little hidden rough, rough diamond,” Kent said.
The property cost $160,000, but the couple took out a $320,000 loan with which to build their home. Kent said she scoured stores for steep discounts on appliances and light fixtures to help stay within the budget.
The well, septic system, siding, windows, insulation and the gutters were all done by traditional contractors. The way the work was done, however, didn’t always appease the new homeowners. Kent watched a contractor who was cutting siding discard long pieces of wood. She thought it was wasteful. With the leftover pieces, she said, the entire detached garage could have been sided.
Instead, she painted pieces with a lace print and lined the walls of her bedroom with them.
Contractors advised them not to use certain materials, either because it wouldn’t look nice or they thought it wouldn’t work. But, the couple pressed on and read a lot to figure out what was possible. They wanted to construct a house that truly felt like their own, and opted out of some common home elements. They don’t have a doorbell, for instance.
All efforts aside, the house they built, Kent said, is just a shell that keeps them warm. The key to it being a home is the togetherness and life fostered inside its walls.
“When everything that became your normal is stripped away from you, then you have to figure out what is living? What really do you do when you’re living? What is the bare minimum of living? And what do you really enjoy in that?”
They enjoy being together. That much is obvious. Haggerty proposed to Kent at Tommy O’s Pacific Rim Bistro, the restaurant where he works, just days after the fire when they were still living out of a hotel. Haggerty and Kent have set a date to get married in July in their backyard, a fitting backdrop for a couple that invested so much in their land.
There’s still some work left to do at the house; they have the front pathway and laundry room floor to finish, along with other aesthetic details. It’s not so stressful now that the big projects are complete and the home is livable.
“I don’t think I would change it. In the long run we achieved our goal … now I’m reaping the benefits,” Haggerty said.
They’re taking each day and each new undertaking one step at a time, a saying that has rung true throughout their whole relationship.
“Tomorrow may not be what you planned … but today is the day that you can do whatever you can,” Kent said.
Today, they’re home.