Building a dream house on a budget

Shortly after moving to Vermont from Colorado seven years ago, Jason Mikula built a treehouse in his backyard in Killington, complete with a climbing wall, hammock and zip lines.
The treehouse, 100 square feet with a wrap-around porch, was meant for his children, now ages 8 and 10, but Mikula built it big enough so that he and his wife Polly could stand up inside and enjoy it, too.
“Standing up there on the porch looking down at the property gave us a whole new perspective,” said Polly. “We hadn’t anticipated enjoying the view from up there as much as we did.”
That perspective influenced many of their decisions when they embarked on their next project: building their own 2,000 square-foot modern farmhouse-style home. The house was completed this year — a 20-year dream the millennial-aged parents achieved in seven years with tactic planning.
The Mikulas started designing their home about two years ago. After scraping some initial plans, the first sketch of what would become their current home started on a napkin — literally. They moved in this past April.
“The process of narrowing down our visions and dreams, to choose just one to move forward with, was very challenging,” said Polly, who noted that her Pinterest board had dozens of posts for most aspects of the house. “Cost was also a limiting factor, obviously. But we were able to achieve many of the looks we liked most by being creative.”
They needed to stick to a $400,000 budget.
“From the start, designing from a tight budget was part of the project,” said Sam Ostrow, the Mikulas brother-in-law, who designed the home. Ostrow is an architectural designer who works with Vermont Integrated Architecture in Middlebury, though this was an independent project that he took on to help the Mikula’s pursue their dream.
“The size, space and materials were designed in a way that wouldn’t break that budget.”
The house, with three different roof heights, is atypical, but, “The structure was intended to be very simple,” said Ostrow. “Nothing was pushed outside of very typical materials and methods.”
The location presented challenges, too. The house is built on a cliff, overlooking the valley. It is within walking distance of a dozen restaurants on Killington Road and it’s less than a minute to Killington Mountain ski resort, but it feels like it’s deep in the woods.
THE MIKULAS’ HOME appears modest and clean and almost traditional as you approach from the drive. But the home’s complexity is intentionally just under the surface. It’s three distinct shed roof pitch in opposing angles to delineate three sections of the home, marked as well with different siding materials and inside helping to break up the space. Dark vertical siding on the middle section and steel siding on the lower level reveals some of the more modern design choices the couple made on the home. Photo by Sam Ostrow
For the designer, the site presented the greatest challenge and greatest opportunity.
“We talked about that treehouse feel,” said Ostrow. “We wanted it to look like it had always been there. The idea was to let the house blend into the landscape around it.”
Everything about it was different for the builder, too.
“I hadn’t ever built anything like it,” said contractor Carl Holmquist, who owns Holmquist Building & Remodeling in Pittsford. “It wasn’t a typical design.”
The house not only fits the landscape, it also fits the Mikulas’ outdoor lifestyle — perched on the side of a mountain, with large windows everywhere looking out into the canopy of trees. This time, it’s a grown up’s treehouse that happens to be kid-friendly.
The master bedroom, which hangs over the steepest part of the cliff, is where the treehouse concept is most apparent. The bedroom is sparse with only a bed for furniture, but features large windows on three sides with trees almost touching.
“Watching a thunderstorm at night from bed is thrilling,” said Polly.
The guest bedroom (pictured, right) is like a jungle gym. With 14-foot high ceilings, it has two bunk beds well in the air with galvanized steel pipes nailed to the wall for a ladder.
“It’s proven to be very popular with the kids,” said Jason, who built many of the Steampunk-style pipe features. This bunkroom also has the prestigious distinction of being Ostrow’s favorite room in the house.
The Mikulas used extra space to make the house seem bigger. A 3-foot high space underneath their daughter’s bedroom, which is on a half-level, makes the perfect children’s fort and play area.
The Mikulas put in their own labor to stay within budget and were able to source some of the materials creatively, such as barn wood from an 1800s structure torn down in nearby Quechee, which is featured on the living room wall.
The kitchen and all three bathrooms have soapstone sinks, from Vermont Mable and Granite. The cabinets are a modern shaker style with soft-close doors and the kitchen counter is quartz, from Kitchen Encounters in Clarendon. The dining room table is a hand make gift from Jason’s father.
The Mikulas wanted Vermont maple wood floors on the main level, but they bought them rough and stained in place to keep the cost down.
Sustainability was also important to the Mikulas.
“We wanted to build an efficient home to avoid wasting precious natural resources or money,” said Jason. “We don’t plan to sell this home, ever, so we were looking for it to be cost-effective over our lifetime. We learned that choosing efficiency doesn’t necessarily have to cost more.”
The home is well insulated so can be heated and cooled by electric heat pumps, a highly efficient source, in addition to a wood-burning stove.
“We have 5 acres of trees, wood is a free and renewable energy source for us,” Jason said.
Residential Energy Consultant Steve Spatz worked with the Mikulas from start to finish. Spatz, who works for Efficiency Vermont, provides free consulting services to make sure new and existing homes are as sustainable as possible. He conducted an energy analysis of the proposed design of the Mikula home. He then worked with the heating contractor to analyze the heat pump equipment and the ventilation system of the Mikula home.
“They definitely went far above and beyond what code requires and what typical construction would be,” said Spatz.
The Mikulas relied heavily on local experts for help. Seth Shaw, the owner of Goodro Lumber in Killington, was a valuable advisor in the project, helping the Mikulas pick materials and finishes to stay within their budget.
ARCHITECTURAL DESIGNER SAM Ostrow was inspired to celebrate the dramatic site of the house in the design. Large windows facing down the slope therefore feature prominently and connection to the landscape is impossible to ignore in this modern, yet cozy home. Photo by Oliver Parini
“They were careful about the planning and did copious amounts of work on the front end to develop a complete knowledge of the costs before they broke ground,” Shaw said.
The end result was a home that the Mikulas cherish.
“We wake up each morning feeling very thankful and lucky,” said Jason. “It was a lot of work – we joke that it’s the culmination of about 10,000 decisions, little and big – but it was worth it.”
The Mikulas still have a few details to finish inside (sliding barn doors to the kid’s fort area, shelves and a mirror vanity for the master bathroom, etc.) which they plan to finish over the winter. Then, upon snowmelt, they’ll be ready to move onto the next project: landscaping!
“Outside the house is kind of a disaster right now, but soon it will snow and then it will be look pretty until the spring,” said Polly. “We’ll deal with landscaping then.”
Editor’s note: Polly Lynn Mikula is the daughter of Addison Independent Publisher/Editor Angelo Lynn. The architectural designer in this story, Sam Ostrow, and the photographer, Oliver Parini, are Angelo’s sons-in-law.

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