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An Honorable Man

Yankee Barn - Greenwich front door

Jim was an honorable man. I worked for and with him for over 20 years. We never argued over details or money. In the construction world this is highly unusual.

Jim was a lifetime IBM salesman who eventually became Worldwide Sales Manager at the time before personal computers. He sold adding machines and typewriters, and he travelled a lot. When we first met I had just finished my first Yankee Barn project elsewhere in town and was recommended by the company. Jim, recently retired, wanted to live near the town center in Greenwich to enjoy its great cultural life – the art, the concerts, the library.

The first thing Jim told me as we walked the wooded lot was, “I don’t want a single blade of grass.” Being a young man at the time, I hadn’t yet succumbed to the silent tyranny of lawn maintenance. I said, in service to my new client, “OK, Jim.” I would say that again hundreds of times during our construction partnership.

Our friendship was not forged in political or philosophical agreement. He was a very conservative man in many ways. Jim’s relationships were built on mutual respect and trust, and we were in total agreement on this most important subject. He certainly brought the best out of me.

Building a Yankee Barn Home

Building a Yankee Barn Home is like building a huge Lego structure … only you need a crane!

Yankee Barn Homes

This particular Greenwich property would never be built upon today. It had a serious wetland watercourse running through it. The foundation as planned sat near the stream. We protected the site with hay and silt fence, stockpiling the excavated material on the street side.

Yankee Barn Homes are post and beam with interlocking stress-skin panels spiked to the frame. They go up like a big interlocking erector set. The frame is milled from salvaged New England timbers and southern early industrial revolution fabric factories.

The timbers can be as large as 12” x 18” x 30’ long, necessitating the use of a crane to move them into position. Great fun for stick-frame house carpenters accustomed to installing 2x material. Each piece is cut at the factory and requires extra close-fitting on site to maintain dimension. The whole house gets spiked together using 12” long pre-drilled nails. The wood is age-hardened highly resinous yellow pine. We used 5 lb. sledgehammers to drive them home! Very burly indeed.

The panels covering the frame hold the windows pre-installed. In seven days – from the time the first floor platform is laid to roof panels installed – a house is up … ready for roofing and siding. Even the insulation and sheetrock are installed.

Of course, there is more work required to make these Barns a functioning home. It still needs plumbing, wiring, heating, floors, tile, trim, painting, etc. Because the stress-skinned panels are sealed, some routing and sawzall work is needed to get pipes and wires where they need to go. In this design process, we used closet walls as chases to expedite the process, later to build another wall to cover them up.

So what happened to the budget?

About two-thirds of the way through the job, we knew where the project’s cost was going. Due to difficult site conditions, we needed an “up-the-hill,” plus tons of gravel and a pump-chamber septic system. Thus, the original budget was “history” as they say.

At one time, Jim – frugal man that he was – purchased a vast quantity of 5×7 note pads with his name at the top. He would communicate his ideas and questions succinctly and efficiently in one sheet memo.

I received one of the notes with a “To Date” list of expenses and a “Projected Cost” breakdown. At the bottom of the page was the following,

“What do you think? Is it worth it?”

More of a statement than a question … but I got the point. A lot of money was being spent … and by the time we finished, more would be spent. Jim wanted his partner – Nick – to tell him everything was going as planned.

Yankee Barn - Greenwich rear deck

Truth is, we had no idea …

that the greatest boon in real estate values would happen in the next ten years or so … and Jim would eventually sell this house for three or four times what he put into it. As I said, Jim was a trusting man. I kept to my part of the bargain by producing a very fine craftsman-based home.

Jim was a bachelor when we originally built the barn. His taste in materials reflected it. These post and beam structures are masculine, very strong and heavy. He chose dark tiles for the entry foyer, dining room and kitchen. Most of the walls were painted a light gray with plumbing fixtures to match. But all this would change.

In the great machineries of time something new happens everyday.

Several years later, Jim called and asked me to stop by. When the front door opened, there stood Jim and Clarissa. They were soon to be married and she was moving in.

And you can bet she had some ideas about redecorating.

The brown tile had to go! We had built this house to last of course … and that tile was glued down with a two-part epoxy – on top of a glued and screwed second layer of plywood. Easier said than done.

We added a new, larger bedroom addition to the right side of the house. And, we built Clarissa a personal space, much more feminine, above the garage. We did all this work on a budget and a handshake, never having a single dispute over quality or cost.

Over the years I would send laborers or carpenters to the house for typical maintenance stuff. When the bulbs of the track lights on the high beams needed replacing (at least 25′ off the floor), we brought the tall ladder with a second pair of hands to brace it. Pride in craftsmanship knew no bounds.

Later on, when Jim and Clarissa were ready to sell and move up to Stowe, Vermont, Jim called. He asked me to give the house an once-over before putting it on the market. His only comment was, “Don’t leave a screw unscrewed.” And we didn’t.

I did send a bill for this work – a final bill from over 20 years of working together. The payment came, promptly as usual, and contained a page from one of the pads. It simply said, “Thanks Nick.”

"Thank You" note – from Jim


One Comment
  1. JesseBorrell #

    from one honorable man to another, jim would be proud of this dedication!

    June 25, 2012

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