The first year out of college is a wildcard for most people. Whether spent bumming around Europe with a backpack or slogging through a suffocating desk job, it’s often a year with little bearing on life’s next chapter. But Blake Dollahite—and his father—saw an opportunity in this transitional time to build a foundation for his future. With a small bank loan and a lot of helping hands, Dollahite dove into his first year of freedom by shackling himself to a rundown Austin bungalow and preparing to make it home.
When you completely deconstruct a house but continue to live in it and call it “home,” rather than “home-to-be,” you really get to see it for what it is. The roof is a thin sheet of plastic, and you can trace a drop of rain from underneath as it strikes and begins to slide, collecting in the swollen roof valleys until a thin trickle finds its way inside. At that moment, the tenuous relationship between an owner and his house becomes apparent. That illusion of security and immunity to what’s out there all just washes down the plastic, too. On the other hand, when it’s done, nothing feels more secure than walls built with your own hands and insulated with memories.
This is my first house. When I finished my art degree at the University of Texas at Austin, my dad suggested that I look for a place that needed some work and said he’d lend a hand. He had plenty of experience, having built and rehabbed all three houses welived in growing up in east Texas. He and my mom were married young and didn’t have much money, so when my brother and I came along, he figured he’d better learn to build a house himself. This would be his fourth.
Neither of us anticipated the project being as large as it turned out to be, but you take opportunities where you find them. I jumped on a little loser of a house—basically a teardown—on a small lot with enough challenges to scare everyone else away. But it was in a great location and cost about as much as the bank would give me.
I closed on the house in the late summer of 2003 and spent that fall designing and planning. Around Thanksgiving we began working on the weekends to rehab exterior walls and stabilize the foundation. Just before Christmas, we began the push.
Between family and friends, I had plenty of help, but my pockets were pretty shallow. I had just a small construction loan and two credit cards. Luckily, my design preferences and my budget were mostly compatible. While I hoped the house would be modern and striking, I wanted to rely on recycled materials to help it feel warm and familiar. I didn’t want my grandma to feel like an astronaut when she visited.
I looked for materials that could have been found in an older home. All of the doors were salvaged or bought cheaply at a local Habitat for Humanity ReStore; much of the flooring was made by milling old roof decking; we made our own light fixtures; and during breaks we surfed eBay. In the end, I was able to keep the construction costs to around $45 per square foot.
Things progressed, the grass turned brown, then green, then brown again. I got the heat running, a little later came permanent power and air-conditioning. Cabinets were built, some extension cords were put away, and my family got a much-deserved rest.
Once I could see the end of that phase, I wondered how I was going to fill this empty space. I certainly couldn’t afford any of the pieces I admired, but I also couldn’t imagine furnishing it with objects of little value to me. My hands had touched every inch of the place, seen and unseen, and the interiors needed to reflect that. I decided it only made sense for the furniture that would live there to be born there, too.
I set up a workshop in the last unfinished room and began designing and building. Each piece needed to have proper proportions and respond to its neighbors. I wanted some to speak loudly, like the media cabinet, which I made with some scraps of exotic wood like padauk and cocobolo, while other pieces, like the coffee table, which resembles a lightbox, would play a more reactionary role. With as simple and minimal a selection of materials as possible—and a few unique finds thrown in for texture and detail—the rooms were eventually filled out.
Finally, I turned to the landscape, which is still settling in. I’m sure the tinkering and refining will never truly be done. The house is comfortable and lived-in now, but I can still picture us all in one tiny room trying to stay warm with West, an empty beer bottle or two (or 20), a space heater, a two-by-four keeping the door shut, and beyond it nothing but a barren slab and an explosion of material in the yard.
It echoes so many scenes from childhood when my dad undertook the same task. I was too young to understand his reasons or the magnitude of the job, and, at times, I felt like the kid with a crazy father. In the end, of course, I am nothing but grateful that he was crazy enough to drive five hours each way almost every weekend for the four years it took to complete this project, because without him, my home would not exist.