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House-Dreams Hardcover – June 1, 2001

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

The first thing one does when building a house is dig the foundation, and that's precisely what happens in the first pages of Hugh Howard's warm, engaging House-Dreams. He'll tell us about how he designed and planned his upstate New York country house in due time, but in the first chapter he brings in the excavator and gets on with the work of construction. It's a fine way to begin a book about building a house. And no, this is not a story about having a house built, with those familiar, dull "horror stories" about contractors' schedules and shoddy workmanship. This is a story of building a house.

Howard is an amateur carpenter and former electrician's assistant, a woodshop tinkerer with little professional experience, who decides to design and construct a house for his growing family. More important, though, he's a writer, and a good one. There are no grand gestures or flourishes here, no clever turns of phrase; his style is simple and comfortable, as I imagine his home must now be. Taking us through the unbelievably complex year-and-a-half-long process, from design to framing, roofing, installing dry wall, trimming, flooring, wiring, plumbing, plastering, cabinet making, and painting, he makes every part of it not only clear but suspenseful (I found myself peeking at a picture of the finished house near the end of the book). Howard is also a good-humored storyteller: a single defining two-word sentence about the man who digs the foundation made me laugh out loud.

This is a book in which hard work is solidly done. Backbreaking days spent framing and roofing are described without a note of complaint. Although they are both self-employed writers, there's no poormouthing in House-Dreams, either, though the couple's late-night anxieties--as winter closes in, as the closing date on their old house draws near--are rarely glossed over. The Howards' financial maneuverings are presented quietly, as evidence that even mind-bogglingly huge tasks can be accomplished, a well-built home can be made, on a limited budget. Though Howard built almost every part of the house himself, with the help of a dry-witted college student from Scotland in the summer and a laid-off landscaper in the off-season, he knew enough to bring in professionals for the jobs with which he was relatively unfamiliar. An enthusiastic local stonemason is hired to make an old-style Rumford fireplace and a Russian grubka (a masonry wood stove in which a fire started in the morning burns intensely for a short time, leaving the brick and stone to radiate heat for the rest of the day). A dreamy and mysterious transplanted Irish landscaper informs the Howards--as it's happening--that he's building a ha-ha at the edge of the lawn, and that over in the woods he'll be putting in "an abandoned tennis court ... a grass one, gone to seed." With only a little hesitation, the Howards, to their credit, decide that suits them just fine.

The local craftsmen in Howard's narrative, though they must have scoffed at his reading and rereading of Palladio, Wright, and Coleridge for inspiration, are sympathetic to his desire to build a house that occupies a certain place in the architectural timeline, one that is of a piece with the land on which he and his family have chosen to put down roots. Recognizing, through Howard's winningly modest account, these tough men's silent approval, and their admiration for the work he's done, is one of the greatest pleasures of House-Dreams. --Liana Fredley

From Publishers Weekly

With no training in construction but an understanding of the principles of architecture, Howard (The Preservationist's Progress) designed and built a house in a town two hours north of New York City. Gleaning much of his information from the writings of the first century B.C. Roman architect Vitruvius and the 16th-century Italian architect Palladio, Howard managed to do everything himself, except for the foundation and the masonry and to get it done in the year and a half between August 1993 and December 1994. The book guides readers through the entire process, from framing to cabinetry. His design incorporates Palladian proportions, as well as details that capture the spirit of 19th-century American architecture. To accomplish the latter, he uses 100-year-old nails, antique doors, window glass and moldings, and a staircase from an abandoned 1870s parsonage. Howard, who was recently featured on Oprah as part of her "Remembering Your Spirit" segment, found great satisfaction in obtaining these materials, and he succeeds in conveying such pleasures, along with the anxiety he suffered as costs mounted. Howard was forced to sell his old home and then rush to finish the new house so his family would have a place to live. (Lively depictions of his family, his neighbors and other helpful players keep the narrative moving throughout.) This absorbing book should appeal to readers who dream of building their own houses, but also to those who have less lofty ambitions. Small b&w photos not seen by PW. Agent, Dominick Abel.

Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (June 1, 2001)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1565122933
  • ISBN-13: 978-1565122932
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 1.1 x 8.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (5 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #4,299,793 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 23, 2003
Format: Hardcover
I have never responded to another's review before, but the one from "A reader from Warwick, RI USA" is utter nonsense. Review the book, don't bother us with inane, self-serving blather about new windows and unions. The book provides the reader with the romance and hardship of following a dream to fruition and for that I, for one, could not put it down. Board by board, nail by nail. It is exactly what I, as one who longs to build my own home some day (using old windows, no less), wanted to get out of the book. To quote Willy Wonka, "We are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of the dreams." Thanks to the author for keeping the dream alive.
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9 of 10 people found the following review helpful By J. Mason on July 7, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Because I hold the seemingly far off dream of one day designing and building my own quiet secluded nest, I was delighted when this book was recommended to me by Amazon.com. I usually don't even read those pesky E-mail advertisements sent to me . . . but the title alone "House Dreams", caught my eye. Hugh Howard completes an amazing task of actually making the reader feel like he/she is part of the building process of his dream home. While some of the architectural history flew way over my head, the book was still a delight to read based on Howard's delectable annecdotes pertaining to how taking on such an enormous task of building his own home, effected his family. This book keeps the hope alive in me that one day too, my dreams could come true.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By G. Innis on January 21, 2008
Format: Hardcover
I am in the process of rebuilding my own house, so I was interested in this book when it was recommended to me. I am already very familiar with the techniques and tools he described, so I found the description elementary, but I have been told by others who only know construction by driving by a work site that it is a fascinating glimpse into this strange world. I am using both an architect and contractor, and his description of the interplay between the two was spot-on (each blames the other for every fault or confusion, so he decided to do both jobs and cut out the middle man). I am sure many architects will find flaws with his plans (as I did), and many a carpenter or contractor may find fault with his technique (cf. another review of this book), but in my opinion that's not the point at all. Rather, I think the point is that he knew what he wanted, figured out what compromises he could live with, and made many interesting discoveries along the way to getting there, such as the Rumford fireplace and the grubka. If you are looking for a how-to book then this one definitely isn't for you. However, if you are after an entertaining read, covering both the joys and pitfalls of trying to build your own house, I heartily recommend it.
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By john o'brien on October 20, 2014
Format: Hardcover
quick shipper, item as advertised, Thanks!
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3 of 16 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 25, 2002
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Although well-written - the author is a writer - more than anything else it suggests why individuals should use building industry professionals instead of the do-it-yourself approach. The author makes a tragic mistake which almost certainly emerges from his lack of experience. Instead of buying new windows compatible with his house design, he buys used wood windows coated with lead-containing paint and strips them himself. In the process he contaminates his own home with lead dust, and his little daughter is lead-poisoned. The restored windows also lacked insulating glass, making his new home not as energy-efficient as it could have been. He could have purchased new wood divided light windows with standard glass that had the historical appearance he wanted for a modest amount of money. His plan also resulted in some awkward plan features that could have been avoided had he hired an architect or a house plan service. He also hires a student from Scotland to provide a lot of critical labor, thereby avoiding paying trade wages and insurance for a skilled worker. In the end the price he paid at the time he did the work shows that he didn't save much money after all.......
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