So what do we want...

We had already gone down the path of the programming with the other house design. Programming is what architects call “stuff you need to live”. I call it “stuff you need to live”.

Amy and explored what we wanted and what we needed. Sometimes those things compliment each other and other times their are in conflict. Since we had already done the programming this was going to be easy. We need the basics - bathroom (shower no tub), 1 sink (2 would be nice but not necessary), living/dining space for at least 4 adults to eat (6 at a table in a pinch), enough room for some of our existing furniture (sofa and 2 chairs), a kitchen just big enough to cook simple meals (not holiday family meals), a bedroom and if there was room another sleeping option for additional people, some storage for skis and bikes and extra stuff that we don’t necessarily use to recreate in Ennis. Boom - programming done!

Put all that into a blender and use the footprint of The Shop and out comes a floor plan design that starts to get tricky but very very doable.

The constraints are interesting.

  • Can’t touch the roof structure

  • Any new addition has to be 5’ setback on the southern boundary of the lot and the building sits ON the property line

  • Use the existing 4 walls of the CMU (cinder block - another fancy building word -construction masonry unit).

  • Figure out a way to get out of the back of the building - no doors or windows except for the front garage door and entry door.

Ready Set Design! Oh, one more constraint - it has to fit a very tight budget!

Power saga: Northwestern Energy monopoly

Building isn’t for the faint of heart but it is one of the most rewarding things to do. This will be our 4th project and we are really looking forward to breaking ground but first…

Oh my, the process of getting things ready is brutal and we have already done it on this property. In order to make The Shop ready for our last set of plans we had to move 2 power poles. That was a 7 month process working with Norther Western Energy (NWE). They promised us a 6 week turnaround and it ended up being 7 long torturous months. The plan was to remove wires that were 5 feet in front of the building. Can’t have those there if we were going to add onto The Shop so what does that take - money, of course - engineering, yes - permission from the neighbors, certainly - money, more of that.

With some deft negotiations we managed to get our three most effective neighbors to share the $18,000 cost now we needed the other 3 neighbors to agree to go underground. They all initially said - “yes, but I’m not paying for it”. We said, that’s ok, we will pay for it, but when it came time to sign the agreement to dig a trench in their backyard they backed out. What to do? Back to negotiating with NWE. They initially said they MUST get compliance to go underground across 6 lots but when pushed they said - “of course we can just go underground on your 3 lots and go up to the other 3”. Complete reversal from their comments 3 months prior to that. October 5th 2018 - 2 new power poles were installed, 1 was removed and our 3 lots had underground power!

This was all before we decided not to build our bigger project but we are still really glad we spent the money and moved the power lines - gives us a LOT more flexibility down the road.

Reality Bites

In early December of 2018 on a long drive back from Whitefish, Montana, Amy and I did a deep dive on why we moved to Montana in the first place. It was to make our lives a bit easier, find some solace in the space of the land, the mountains. We always had the goal of having a small place in Bozeman and not extend ourselves financially. The values we set was a comfortable place to live, small and manageable that required very little maintenance that gave us flexibility. We made a very hard decision.

We decide NOT to build the house that we had worked so hard to design. It simply didn’t make financial sense. All the time and money spent with the architect, the engineer, and some initial permitting was gone - spent costs. It felt like wasted money and time. At the same time an amazing sense of relief and peace came with that decision.

We came full circle and decided to do a renovation on the existing building and build a small house within the footprint of the current building. The lot is zoned R2 and is one of very few lots that is zoned to be able to build 2 permanent residential units on the property.

With the help of a builder friend, he suggested we work with Scott Miller. Scott is a trained architect and operates as a design/build consultant. We are now in the process of turning this funky ca 1973 cinder block building into a small pied a terre in the heart of downtown Bozeman.

The Shop

Some details on The Shop. It is a 30’x40’ cinder block building with a 12’x16’ roll up door, slab floor with a small kitchen and bathroom (tiny living space) just off of the entrance. It is 3 blocks from Main Street in downtown Bozeman. The lot is big by comparison - 50’x196’ with a season ‘creek’ in the back of the property. We also have a railroad spur that delivers to a feed store once a week on Thursday afternoons.

We did a survey with the architect and started to hone in on what we want to build and how we want to live. That was a soul searching process that had actually started many months before. We ultimately decided to keep the existing building and add on to it for our primary residence. The design process begins.

Lori designed a pretty amazing building and with a lot of back and forth over the course of several months the design was agreed upon and the programming of our new house was complete. The house was on the small side - about 2,100 square feet of living space, detached garage, studio for Amy, 3 bedrooms, 2.5 bath rooms, large open living, kitchen dining area and some special cool treatments of windows and private spaces.

How do we get this built? We selected a builder based on some recommendations and Pete was terrific to work with and we began the process of pricing out this build.

The process was exciting at first but the reality of the new economy in Bozeman quickly became frustrating. We had a budget to stick to and that budget got blown out within the first pass at the build spec. There were a combination of factors - the building boom in Bozeman was driving prices through the roof, the design of the building was expensive to execute (material choices, design details etc), wood and metal nearly doubled in price due to political idiocy. Subcontractors and trades wouldn’t commit to a time or a price for our build but we kept pushing because we REALLY wanted to build this house. Stubbornly and probably against all common sense we kept at it a bit too long.

When the build costs looked like they were double our budget we took a hard look at our purpose and did a reset on the whole project.


If Bozeman was going to be our stimulus package, the question was, where should we look. Bozeman has so many great neighborhoods. So many things were driving that decision but ultimately we knew that we wanted to be close to Main Street - walkable to restaurants, coffee, shopping etc. That would be a contrast to the property in Ennis which is acreage (comparatively small) surrounded by big big ranches.

We looked at old houses to renovate, new renovations that were already completed but ultimately we wanted to build something that was our own. Fast forward to when Amy was spending the winter in Ennis on her sabbatical. She shared our idea with a good friend and he said, “I have the place, come with me” So we put on our coats and took a walk and came to a snow covered lot and in the back of the lot was a cinder block building with a big garage door. We spoke with a referred real estate agent, made an offer and closed on the property in May 2017. We bought a garage!

Now what?!?!

So many decision points - what do we do with this property, what do we want, how do we want to live, who will design the house, the property is zoned R2 (two residences permitted) so what does that mean to our design thoughts, when should we build, who will build it…

We interviewed 5 architects and settled on Lori Ryker - great designer and a good communicator with Amy. That was imperative because Amy was going to be the leader on the design of this project. The journey begins in exploring what we want to do and how we were going to proceed.


The Question?

The question that started it all was an existential one. Why do we live in California? That exploration lead us down a path to many more questions.

Do we want to live in California?

Should we live in the same town/same house we raised our family?

Should we even think we could live anywhere else?

We own a home in Montana and we love it there? What if we lived there? Do we want to live there? Could we live there? Why are we even considering this?

Step #1 - Let’s start by spending several weeks in a row in our home in Ennis and see what happens.

Step #2 - Let’s spend most of the winter in Ennis.

Step #3 - Game theory out the whole idea - what will it be like to rent or sell our California house, what will it be like to move away from our lifetime friends and family, what will it be like to remake and/or give up our work life that we have known for 25 + years, what will it be like to start fresh with a handful of friends and acquaintances.

Step #4 - Make a small bet and see where all of these questions land on the scale from “you are an idiot” to “let’s do this”

Step #5 - Can Ennis be our permanent home or is it too small, too isolated, too rural, too disconnected, can we make friends (are there people like us). Remember we came from big city LA and San Francisco surrounded by MILLIONS of people and Ennis has 900 people.

So fast forward, while spending a winter in Montana Step #2 was a resounding - we can do this.

Questioning Step #5 we decided that Ennis was going to be too hard of a stop from the Bay Area and a very active professional and social life. Decision was to look for a property in the big city - Bozeman.