The Barn Bungalow

by Beth

Oh, 2018, where have you gone? The frost is here, so it’s official: the stars didn’t align to build the dome this year. The concrete that holds the shell together won’t set in freezing weather.

It’s a bummer. Chris and I are the kind of people who attack projects, but our “forever dome” hasn’t been receptive to our approach. We want to make sure it’s done right. In our rural area, where skilled labor is thin, that means waiting on professionals we trust while painstakingly learning parts of the build ourselves, on nights and weekends.

We’ve learned a lot: how to read architectural drawings and take-offs, how to bid work, how to tie rebar, how to firm up a gravel driveway, how to be patient.

We also learned we don’t want to rent anymore, even though we rent here, and it’s beautiful:

yellow dome home
Yellow rental dome.

We’ve loved “coming dome” to this cove, thanks to the neighbors and the big, central field where the dogs and deer play. There’s an apple orchard around the corner with delicious cider. It’s a quick drive to our land, the National Park, and the Appalachian Trail. Did I mention the neighbors? They’re our closest friends here.

fall color Tennessee drone photo
Fall colors in the cove are nice, too.

Moving is expensive. We only wanted to do it once out here, so we planned to rent the yellow dome – the building that inspired us to build our own dome – until our own dome was ready. Early this year, we thought. Summer at the latest. We never meant to rent this long.


2018 taught us that sometimes the harder you push, the more you find out how powerless you are. No amount of creativity, kindness, or telekinesis would make our dome go up. Then, our rent did.

And That’s Our Queue to Exit
Our landlord is a 90-year-old litterbug who built the yellow dome 20 years ago and thinks he should still be building it now. By “building,” I mean replacing working things with stuff he finds at the dump. If he’s not running loud tools, he’s running an ancient, combustible-looking tractor with faulty brakes. Or both; the tractor’s starter is broken, so he doesn’t like to turn it off.

Once he left the tractor running at the end of our driveway and left for the day. We’re not sure if he couldn’t turn it off (it took Chris and a neighbor 45 minutes to figure it out) or meant to come back the next day to an already running tractor for ease of use.

Tractor v. garage door.

He lives 45 minutes away, but that’s not too far for him to show up any day of the week, weekend and holiday inclusive, usually between 7-8:30 a.m. He promised not to arrive before 8 but is on self-designated year-round Daylight Savings. He kicks up the tractor first thing and spends most of the day in a cloud of diesel vapor running over things we like.

Tractor v. satellite dish.

Worse, he sets fires. Scattered, surprise bonfires of treated lumber and plastic garbage he doesn’t feel like throwing in the back of his pickup to blow out onto the neighbors’ lawns. Then he leaves, so we have to run out and douse the fires before, or as, they spread. LonelyFire042418.jpgWe’ve asked him in many direct and clear ways to stop with the fires, but he’s not hearing it. We don’t know what else to do. The last time I asked him to put one out, under a dead hemlock when winds were forecast to 30 mph, he raised the rent, significantly.

If you haven’t experienced it, it’s impossible to know the torment of having a [fire-setting] third party haunt your home space. There’s a reason the right to privacy is woven intricately into our Constitution.

Besides that, it’s one thing to pay high rent for a fine home, but while this rental dome is special to us, it’s not fine. It was built with scrap material and no common sense. Exposed wires once shocked Chris so hard he lost feeling in his arm for a week. I have 2 broken toes and a forehead dent from when moments of clumsiness made me vulnerable to the hella sharp rough-cut lumber he used as trim work. The salvaged water heater helped us get to know the local volunteer fire department. It caught on fire after being plumbed to leak on itself, as it was equipped with an old breaker that didn’t trip. The oven he grabbed off the curb after the neighbor threw it out (we know this because the neighbor still chuckles about it) lasted a year before it caught fire, too. A too-shallow well fills the toilets with brown silt. None of the doors seal, so utility bills are crazy. Despite the doors letting in plenty of fresh air, the house smells of waves of sewer gas and dead rodent. In between rodent die offs, it smells of sewer gas and rodent urine, which is better than dead rodent, trust me.

crooked door with gap
This door is closed and locked. Fancy mud stains came with the door.

If you’re saying, How can this be? There are rules and codes! You’re sort of right, except there’s no code enforcement in the unannexed part of our county. Even where rules are more clear than in rural Tennessee, it can be tricky to challenge a landlord.

We’ve learned to seal off most rooms winter and live together in the den, to filter our water, to stop using all lights with switches that sizzle, and so on. At a do-able rent and with our own dome in the works, we thought we could live with almost anything. We were probably wrong. It’s been rough. When the rent was hiked, we hit our limit.

So, where to? Do we rent somewhere else? I made the mistake of adding up the rent we’ve paid for the privilege of being terrorized by our landlord so far: it’s $40,000. Instead of paying to move so we can keep paying rent somewhere else, we’ve decided it’s time to find a way to live on and invest in our own land ASAP, whatever that looks like.

Fall color is brighter on our mountain, anyway 🙂 Here’s 18 enchanting seconds of it from a drone on a windy day:

Plan A: Hail Mary on the Dome Build
Chris worked very, very hard this summer to move the dome build forward. We knew if we could build the exterior shell before the frost in November, the interior could be worked on over the winter, and move-in might happen before trees were green again. That meant footers, foundation, and basement walls had to be in place by October. Our plans were ready, our driveway was [mostly] ready, our budget was ready, our building team was…flaky. They’re good, which means they’re appropriately in demand and busy, which they’ve been fairly clear with us about, in a builder sort of way. As a consolation prize, they’ve been coaching us on how to do things ourselves.

We’ve always been interested in building part of this ourselves. However, we’re also working full-time jobs, not as home builders. Learning about homebuilding is another full-time job. Actually building a home is yet another. As summer veered into fall, our “free time” matured into a vortex of research and manual labor. Chris traveled for work during the week, then came home and organized things like excavation and rebar take-offs. He found tractor forks for Greta to handle more tasks without having to rent separate equipment.

Kubota tractor, man with hat, and rebar
Greta is our tractor.

When the rent went up, Chris kicked building efforts into even higher gear, getting bids from new subcontractors and learning the ins and outs of concrete forms. He scheduled compass with men in background a compaction inspection of the housepad to confirm that the dome will be on solid ground. With the pad ready, we measured and painted the outline of our future dome, an intense process that took stakes, measuring tapes, a compass, and lots of guidance and discussion. We measured and painted footer outlines. Chris had the rebar delivered so the footers and concrete could be poured.

Incredible Tiny Ideas
Even as Chris was making amazing things happen, my focus was shifting to plan B. If the dome didn’t go up, I was finding us another way to leave the yellow rental dome at our nearest inconvenience. Because while Chris was away for work all week, I was working from home at the yellow dome, slowly losing my last threads of sanity to the landlord on the lawn.

One weekend while helping Chris tie rebar, I played phonetag with a tiny home builder in Morristown, TN. Morristown is one of the closest larger small towns to us. It’s where Calista Flockhart’s parents retired and where Randy Jones builds his Incredible Tiny Homes in the epic ruins of an industrial park.

panorama of old industrial park
We go fun places.

Randy invited us to tour tiny homes, which took under 10 minutes. Tiny homes are WYSIWYG.

We liked the line of new, utilitarian, tiny container homes he was working on and came up with an idea to combine 2 container homes for a total of 320 heated square feet.

tiny home building warehouse
Homes being born.

Going tiny is alluring the way that going off-grid is. Severing reliance on material and modern conveniences can feel like freedom. Of course, making up for a lack of grid power or storage space can be as time-consuming as working a job to pay the power bill. To each their own.

Chris and I knew going off-grid was too strong a shift for our lifestyle. We suspected going tiny would be, too, but we considered it long enough that Chris asked GC Doug for tiny advice.

If you haven’t read all our posts, GC stands for General Contractor, and Doug is as much our teacher as he is the GC of our dome. GC Doug asked Chris why we didn’t upfit our barn instead.

red barn with fall colors and green grass
Oh, yeah. We already have a building.

Our metal pole barn is 720 interior square feet with 360 covered square feet outside. We built it as a basic storage shelter, with metal walls and a gravel floor. Our plan was to come back to it after finishing the dome: install a real floor, a workshop, power, water, maybe septic.

But now, since the dome obviously wants to wait, we’ll do the barn first.

red barn with concrete polishing machine
Concrete polisher making it smoooooth.

While the container-home solution was great and ready-made – they’re plumbed, wired, windowed, move-in-ready homes – there are many reasons the barn upfit is better for us, besides more than 2x the space.

We won’t have to excavate and surface another area on our land as a homepad. We won’t have to bring power, water, or septic to an area we weren’t already planning to. It’s black mouth cur inside barn with gravel floorcosting about $5,000 to do that for the barn, even with power-company credits and fairly reasonable septic-install cost. We could’ve saved a lot of money with a compost toilet or other homemade septic solution, but nahhh.

One initial concern was that we’d have to do for the barn what we couldn’t do this year for the dome: get builders to show. It hasn’t been as much of a problem for the barn. Probably because it’s 1/3 the size and has right angles. We’re offering bite-sized, uncomplicated jobs at a time of the year when the weather’s nice.

As of this post, the barn bungalow has a permitted and professionally installed septic tank. Plumbing is roughed in, and the slab was poured after the termite prevention went in. Windows and exterior doors are on order. Next, we frame, insulate, plumb some more, wire, run power and water, add walls, install the kitchen, plumb again, tile the shower and backsplash, move in. Something like that.

inside of barn with polished concrete floor

After we build the dome, we might partially dismantle the barn bungalow so it’s 1/2 garage-1/2 apartment, or we might leave it and rent it. That’s a decision for later. In the meantime, living there will mean we can finally get on with living on the domestead. Farmscaping, building gardens, planting fruit, raising chickens! It will put us next to the dome site, too, to help move that forward, but we’ve pledged total patience with the dome build. If you can’t enjoy the journey, what do you have?

We’ll keep keeping you posted, but for more mini updates, follow our Instagram.

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