ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Romanticize all you want about the warm-and-fuzzy intangibles of family members coming together to build a new house with their own hands. But for Don and Janette Brubacher and their three sons, the motivation was much more…tangible.
Without a whole lot of family labor, they simply couldn’t have afforded to build the house they wanted.
“We had planned on hiring all the concrete work and framing until we started putting the numbers together and came to the conclusion we would not be living in the house when we completed it unless we did more of the work ourselves,” said Don, who is athletic director and men’s basketball coach at Tabor College.
Janette is a special-education paraeducator at Hillsboro High School. Oldest son Scott will be a senior at Tabor College this fall, Grant will be a sophomore at Tabor, and Andy will be a senior at Hillsboro High School.
After some 15 years in the dreaming and planning stages, the Brubachers finally launched the project in mid-June on 2.4 acres just east of the city limits in what is known locally as the Carl Friesen Addition.
The idea to build their own house is almost as old as their first house in Hillsboro-which Don and Janette built in 1979 with “a tremendous amount of help” from Don’s father, Don J. Brubacher, a career contractor who lives in Hesston.
“Our family built the house that we previously lived in,” Don said. “Any time we considered a building project, we planned on doing some of the work ourselves.
“It’s part of the process for us, I guess.”
Through his teen years, Don picked up design and construction experience through his father’s company, and worked full time as an electrical contractor with his father for the first two years out of college.
Though he chose a different career direction, that experience has been invaluable.
“Don drew the plans for the house,” Janette said.
That was some 15 years ago. Moving from dreaming stage to building stage took much longer than they had anticipated-for a variety of reasons.
Finding the right site was a big one.
“We’ve been looking for property for a long time that would allow us to have a building for me to engage in my second job/hobby and have a home on the same property,” Don said. “This is the first opportunity we had to buy a property to allow that to happen.”
As a sideline, Don and the boys have been buying cars with body damage, repairing them and then selling them. Their workshop has been in Hesston until now. The prospect of having a shop close by has motivated the boys’ involvement as much as anything.
“It’s nice having a building in town where we can work whenever we want and not have to drive so far to work,” Scott said. “That will be really handy for us.”
The notion of building a new house as a family appealed to the brothers, too, who turned down other summer job opportunities for this one.
“It was kind of exciting,” Grant said. “We’ve actually never moved before, so this will be our first new house. I don’t think we really knew we were getting into, but it’s been all right.”
What the family has gotten into is a lot of hard work and long hours on the job site. Don, who is squeezing the most out of his vacation days from Tabor, is usually on site by 6:30 a.m. The boys join him by 7 a.m. or 7:30 a.m..
Twelve to 15 hours later, the boys call it a day to pursue other interests-each is involved in a variety of athletic endeavors-while Don puts in a few more hours at the site.
“We work from dawn to dusk,” Janette said with a smile. “On a number of evenings, I’ve been out there holding a flashlight for Don so he can finish a wall or something.”
The Brubachers have gotten some professional assistance with the concrete work and, more recently, with the framing. A family friend from Hesston helped with the concrete, and Steve Vogt, Janette’s cousin who is a builder in Wichita, has joined the team to help with framing.
“We’re doing a lot of the work, but we have someone who makes sure it’s done right,” Don said. “We’ll do all the electrical work, and we’ll do the roofing and probably quite a bit of the trim and carpentry work, too.”
Janette has pitched in with the men, performing myriad tasks, including running errands, delivering messages and bringing snacks to the site from time to time.
“I also get the really good jobs, like cleaning the (concrete) forms-the jobs that don’t take a lot of refined skills,” she said with a laugh.
Janette will likely do most of the interior trim painting and staining when that time comes.
Don’s father has contributed time and energy to this project, too, as have Janette’s parents, John and Hilda Vogt of Hillsboro.
“They do what they can,” Janette said. “It’s been really good having them involved.”
The enterprise hasn’t been easy. Frequent rains showers in early summer slowed the project. Then the sun came out in blazing hot glory-just in time for the strenuous task of pouring and sealing concrete.
Working with concrete definitely has been the toughest task so far, the Brubacher boys agree.
“Framing is a lot of work, but it’s not nearly as bad,” said Scott, who is the only brother with previous construction experience.
Though economics has been a primary motivation for this family project, the Brubachers recognize and appreciate some of those intangible advantages, too.
“Mostly we try not to create any long-term bad feelings,” Don joked.
Added Janette: “The boys aren’t necessarily as excited about the 12- to 15-hour days. They hadn’t anticipated it would be quite that much of a commitment on their part. But they’ve been good about it.”
The Brubacher brothers are used to receiving instructions from their father, who has contributed his expertise to their athletic endeavors through the years-and especially now while Scott and Grant play basketball for the Bluejays.
“I don’t think he’s as hard on us (at the building site) as he is when we play basketball,” Scott said.
“It’s a little more relaxed,” Grant added with a grin. “It’s not quite as intense.”
Don doesn’t argue with that.
“It’s a lot less emotional,” he said, adding with a wry smile: “I don’t think the guys are all that excited about the work, necessarily. They decided to play basketball themselves, but they didn’t really make a lifelong commitment to carpentry or concrete work.”
Family dynamics have survived to this point.
“They work pretty well out there together,” Janette said, but she added that the long hours come with a price, too.
“We don’t really have down time together,” she said. “It’s all work-or else (the boys) are gone (to other activities). If we work late, we all crash together. There hasn’t been a lot of social time. It’s not like being on vacation together.”
Don and Janette realize not every family can work together to this degree.
“We’ve been involved in a lot of activities together over the years,” Don said. “It’s been typically athletic participation, but that’s more emotional and more stressful than this kind of work.
“You learn to accept each other’s personalities and approaches to things in general,” he added. “If you can handle that in a competitive environment, you can usually handle it pretty much in any environment.”
Humor has been a key ingredient to the mix.
“The guys have not been difficult to work with,” Don said. “It’s been quite the opposite of that. They would probably say I’m the difficult one to work with.”
The word “slave driver” came quickly to their lips when asked about working alongside their father, but the brothers said it with a chuckle.
Scott said he and his brothers understand that this experience is more important than simply building a new house or earning some summer spending money.
“I don’t think we realize it now, but once (the house) is up and we’ve lived in it for a while, we’ll realize that we built it and how nice it is to build it as a family,” he said.
“I think my parents realized that with their old house, and they’re kind of excited to do it again.” –