By Kathy Kane
In 1995, a 5 foot 2 inch tall woman walked into the Buncombe County Building Permit office. “I would like to take out a permit to build my house, please,” I said. “Who is your Builder Maam?” he asked. “Me,” I said. “Do you have your architectural drawings?” he said. “In my head,” I said. He grinned and scratched his head and said… “I’m sorry Maam, but you have to submit a drawing to pull a permit.” So I pulled a napkin out of my backpack and quickly drew a rough floor plan with dimensions, locating the home on the prospective site and handed it to him. “Will this work?” I asked. “Uhh, I guess so,” he said, looking a bit confused. This was the beginning of my very endearing relationship with the Buncombe County Building Department.
In 1984, I graduated from Southern Maine Technical College with an Associate Degree in Building Construction. I was the first woman to be awarded the two highest honors for the two- year program. After working for a local contractor for awhile, I joined a partnership with a fellow SMTC graduate, Bob Chevalier and we started our own company called K&C Builders. We enjoyed seven years of successful custom home building and remodeling in the Cumberland County area. In the first year, Bob and I did all of the work. From architectural drafting (by table and pencil), to framing and finish. As the business grew, we hired a small crew and I was able to scale back to office work, but would still do all the finish work as this was my love. In Maine, at that time, it was rare to see a woman working in this capacity. But it would not take long for the skeptic to change their opinion when they watched me work. It seemed that a woman had to be better than a man to be accepted in a predominantly male trade.
The hard economic times of the mid 80’s and 90’s with high interest rates hit the construction business hard. Bob continued running the company for a few more years and I assisted, but had to seek additional income as an Energy Auditor and Indoor Air Quality specialist. Again, an unusual position for a woman for that time period.
By 1992, I had finished a side project of renovating a five-unit apartment building that I bought in the early 80’s. That purchase was actually the beginning of my carpentry career. I didn’t have the money to hire out all the projects, so I decided to learn the trade.
Working year round outdoors in Maine is rough. It could be 10 degrees with the wind and snow blowing, but you worked or you didn’t make any money. It seemed only people born in such areas would even consider enduring these conditions. I started asking why? The blizzard of 1993 hit Portland hard, dumping about four feet of snow on the City. That was 35 years of cold, snowy Maine winters and it was enough for me! The next Fall, I discovered the Asheville area while on a kayaking adventure with a friend. I fell in love with the mountains, the Southern culture, the weather and the price of land! In 1995 I purchased 12 acres for $20,000. An unheard of bargain compared to the land prices near Portland, ME… A lifelong dream of mine was about to begin, building a farm in the country, from scratch, by myself.
Barnardsville, North Carolina? I had no idea where I was, but when I saw the view of these gorgeous mountains from my land, I didn’t care. I knew I was home. After living in the city of Portland for 17 years, I wanted to live in the country, have land, trees for woodworking, and lots of animals. My first order of business was acquiring temporary shelter. I bought a small camper and lived at the foot of the mountain with my two faithful doggie companions, Rhoads and Kaler. The doggies were delighted to have freedom to roam without leashes and were pleased to have the job of chasing away critters and keeping watch for Mom.
The original dream was to build something simple, something organic, energy efficient, utilizing sustainable and “green” practices. For years, I had been reading “green” and self-sufficient lifestyle publications. Getting off the grid and getting away from power bills. Growing organic fruits and vegetables and living off the land. For years, I had been building traditional structures to code. Now I wanted to build something different, something unique. I wanted to minimize or eliminate my carbon footprint and disappear into the wildness.
The closest town was Asheville. Surely that was far enough away. About 30 minutes. No one is going to care what I did way out in the middle of nowhere.
But the dream of “green” quickly came to an end when I went to the Buncombe County permit office to get my building permit. To them “green” was a color. A hay bale house? A gray water system? Composting toilets? Rainwater catch systems? “You want to do what?” he asked. The answer came swiftly…”Honey, you can do anything you want, after your Builder builds the house to North Carolina and Buncombe County building codes. And until you do, you will not be allowed to have permanent electrical power. POWER. I really was beginning to dislike this word, but if I had to build a house to code, I knew I would have to give up most of my concepts. The next 12 months I enjoyed interesting and humorous interactions with the various building inspectors. They were all very nice to me and very supportive. Once they realized I knew what I was doing, they were great, but still everything was to be done to code. This of course raised the cost of construction immensely and my allotment for the project ran out quickly. I proceeded to build a fairly conventional structure without most of my green concepts. I was able to situate the home with solar orientation in the hope of having the money someday to go off the grid.
Rumors spread quickly throughout our little community of this little woman on the mountain building a house by herself. I was told later that some thought I must be “helicopterin’” in crews of men to help me. The women around town had not heard the likes of such of an endeavor by a woman. But I think secretly they liked the idea.
I satisfied my artistic needs with unique interior finishes of wooden beams, wide planked wood floors, rough plaster wall finishes, rustic wood doors and trim from wood salvaged from an old tobacco barn. Some have described the style as “French Country.” It’s still an ongoing project today, since many other projects and structures keep emerging such as a large workshop, an in-law apartment( part-time for my Mother), a four-stall horse barn, a large organic garden, a cabin, several fire pits, trails, stone walls and ongoing maintenance. All done with love and joy. I feel blessed for this wonderful piece of paradise. The home is partially furnished with tables and chairs that I have made and with wood from my own land.. My friends have nicknamed my place “Camp Kathy,” an inspiration for all women and men who visit and are amazed at what a woman can do when she puts her mind and hands to it.
I am pleased to see that Green, Energy Efficient Building practices are much more popular now. I bet though if I had told that fellow in the permit office back in ‘95 that I might put carpet in my house made from recycled plastic coke bottles, he would have thrown me out of the building.
Kathy is currently a Realtor in the Asheville area, runs a small retreat called Camp Kathy in Barnardsville, teaches woodworking and meditation and can be contacted at email@example.com or 828-231-4437. Also visit www.KathyKaneSells.com