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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
Sports >  Outdoors

Off the Grid: The planning department is a killjoy

By Ammi Midstokke For The Spokesman-Review

One could not really hope for a better team than my husband and I when it comes to designing and building a house together. Charlie has a life-long career in construction, based mostly on conservative planning, risk management and a formal degree, and I don’t believe in the laws of physics, supply chain timelines or vinyl.

In fact, I regularly make suggestions inspired by the Bernstein Bears or JRR Tolkein.

Why can’t our doors be rounded and the talking squirrels live in an attached Additional Dwelling Unit? Where will we install the pulley system activated by a password (or Alexa), and who says you can’t use tree stumps as foundation posts?

Apparently, there’s a whole city department dedicated to thwarting my creativity and ruining my dreams. They have something called Red Flags, and while I’ve been issuing those to bad dates for years, I did not realize they held such weight in residential construction.

Charlie is the yin to my yang. His first sketch of the house was a box with other boxes in it. It was a veritable fortress of snow load capacity, efficient window placement, and a row of bedroom doors opening into the living space reminisce of a prison mess hall.

If I were to draw my ideas on paper (thus far I’ve only expressed them in interpretive dance and slam poetry), I’d use water color and capture the fundamental feel of the space with a collection of lotus flowers to represent each chakra. As you can imagine, our architect adores us.

“Is this deck covered?” she asks.

“Yesno,” we respond in unison.

Her job, if she chooses to accept it, is to bring us to agreement on such matters. Generally, this is achieved by late-night text-volley of various roofing pictures we like or don’t like. We generously include her on these rapid-fire exchanges. As I was the “no,” I add the occasional article about some sort of deck roofing disaster to support my argument. The right gust of wind will just peel back the whole thing like a sardine tin.

The Berensteins did not have this problem. They used foliage for shading. And no one made them put a railing on their staircase or they just took it off after inspection - not that I would ever apply such a reckless strategy of disregard for the important work of the building inspector, of course.

What we lack in being able to use existing natural structure, we hope to make up for in windows so we can at least see the nature around us. While literal window shopping last weekend, I saw a window I thought would look quite attractive in our new structure and said as much.

“That’s a $30,000 window,” said the guy who sells things you can see through. That would fit into my budget just fine if the kids prepare for the future by digging their own fox holes. Having grown up with windows made of sheet plastic myself (double-paned, mind you, because it was North Idaho), it seemed rather frivolous to buy the Ferrari of panes. Perhaps Plexiglass is a valid compromise.

That dirty word, compromise, is one we’re going to have to make a regular part of our collaborative vocabulary, it seems. We each have a finite number of vetoes in a marriage, and while this should be increased for any couples building a house or those who share desserts, I suspect we are quickly approaching maximum-veto-allowance and will soon be forced to agree on things.

But for now, when asked what sort of style we’re building in, we say Scandinavian-Rustic-French-Farmhouse-Industrial-Lodge and play rock-paper-scissors to decide on everything else.

Ammi Midstokke can be contacted at

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