Claude Built a House

Grandpa Claude was born not very far away from where I live. He was born in this town, lived in this town, and he will be buried here–but he’s thankfully still around.

Right now, Grandpa is 89 years old and doing well. He spends his time reading books, mostly, and he is a pleasure to talk to.

Grandpa is an optimist. Life is good. He doesn’t complain, always looks on the bright side, and never gets discouraged. He loves talking to people and and whenever he does, he is simply happy.

Grandpa was born into a farming family, but he never wanted to be a farmer. He built cars when he was young and learned about mechanics. He attended some college, worked for his father-in-law at the sawmill and telephone company for a time, and then wanted to be his own boss for the rest of his life.

So Grandpa owned an excavation company for quite a while. He loved working.

Grandpa Claude could figure out how to do just about anything. He built this home for his retirement by himself and he did it in his own way.

There was a church that was set to be demolished not far from here, and Grandpa was able to recover much of the material from that church. I still have a pile of brick from that church in my yard, and it’s been there for so long that many of the bricks are buried in the ground.

Fascinated with underground buildings, Grandpa decided to dig into the side of the rock hillside. He dug what he could, but there were huge rocks that couldn’t be moved. He built his house around them. And where the spring was coming up from the hillside, he built a box in his house to collect the water and use it inside.

He built the house mostly with concrete, but when it came to the roof, he did something a bit different: he took the entire floor assembly from the church and he stuck it on top of his house. 2x12s rest on 40 foot long i-beams. Where the joists had to be cut up for transportation, Claude stuck down some metal pieces and tied it back together again. The roof was flat in the center and sloped down on either side: he just stuck the wood on and let it bend into place.

He used a large wood pole, chains, and a backhoe to somehow get this floor up to use as the roof for his house. He didn’t disassemble or reassemble any of it, even leaving some remnants of vinyl tile on it. He also did not nail the roof onto the walls. It just sat there, unattached for about 30 years.

The house was always a work in progress, and he had great plans for it. He didn’t do a great job finishing the slab because he always wanted to put in radiant heating. He kept updating and the changing the electrical, leaving many of the wires exposed and open. And he never got drywall on the ceiling, instead putting up reflective insulation and wood trellis.

But he did finish something: he covered the front of the house with rocks that he handpicked himself.

The rock wall is really the best part of the house. Grandpa Claude worked on it for years and years and years. We would come by and visit and he would have put up a few more rocks, and it very, very slowly covered up the concrete. He put a great deal of care in choosing the rocks for the front of the house: they are beautiful, of all different types, including some petrified wood and one rock that looks like it has a vein of silver running through it.

This house will always be Grandpa’s house, full of his craftsmanship, innovation, and creativity. But there are mistakes too: when he poured an exterior concrete wall, there was some miscommunication and the concrete ended up on the outside of where it should have been. The concrete wall was supposed to hold up the roof, but it didn’t match up. Instead, it simply held up a rain gutter, and a metal beam on the inside of that wall held up the roof. There was a literal gap in-between the end of the roof and the outside wall. The large gutter kept out most of the elements, and it was just storage space anyway. We found a bird’s nest tucked in there, and I’m pretty sure that’s where the squirrel was entering the house.

I would imagine that it could be difficult to watch someone renovate the house that you built. But Grandpa says he’s glad he didn’t finish it so that we can. He’s happy to see our progress, even when we make huge changes.

Grandpa had enough imagination that this house always worked for him, even when it had its problems. He was never fixated on the leaks or the fact that the back laundry room did not have a back wall. He liked the fact that since the house was underground, it stayed a constant temperature. He was proud of the spring box that he had built and covered with an old school bus sign. He always focused on what worked about the house, instead of what didn’t.

This house is different, and for some people it may not make a lot of sense. But Grandpa knew what he was going for. He didn’t want what everyone else had–he wanted something unique and different.

And he got it. No one else in this whole world has a house like this: a church floor serving as the roof. A running spring under the floor in the back room. Real, heavy rocks cemented onto the front of the house.

We love it, all of it. Even though it will never be a perfect house, it will be our home, and its imperfections will always remind me of the man who thought that this house was a good idea.

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