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Discovering unexpected secondary dwellings

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Tuesday, September 10, 2013
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And the Kids: Hannah Mohan, Rebecca Lasponaro, and Megan Miller

Turns out, the ways people find offbeat and quirky dwellings can be rather offbeat and quirky. For Hannah Mohan of the band And the Kids, a housing situation that wasn’t as conducive to rehearsals as she hoped begged for some creative improvisation.

Mohan had been living with bandmates Rebecca Lasponaro and Megan Miller in a rental house in Easthampton. Their ideal situation—a large, inexpensive house with musician housemates—hasn’t been realized. However, they discovered a piece of land by the Connecticut River in Hadley with access to electricity. “We thought about campers,” Mohan says. “Then we heard that you could rent storage pods month to month, delivered wherever you want.”

Pods are secure, offer solid protection from the elements, and at eight feet tall, eight feet wide and 16 feet long, boast ample room to accommodate band rehearsals. “The interior is wooden and we added some soundproofing foam,” Mohan explains. “The acoustics are amazing. We sound great in there.”

The bandmates’ summer improvisation includes tents. Their bathroom is a port-a-potty. “The monthly rental fee includes a weekly cleaning service,” Mohan says. While they shower at “really generous” friends’ houses, sometimes Mohan jumps into the river with “a little Dr. Bronner’s soap” instead.

They’ve foraged for food and planted a vegetable garden, with help from Mohan’s father. They cook over a fire pit. “We’re working on a tarp system to protect the kitchen area,” Monhan explains. “It’s rained a lot.” They dine at a picnic table. Sunny weather perks include a beach—and kayaks.

The trio practices at least once a day, often more. They hope to record in the pod ahead of an Iron Horse opening act gig in September. Along with their dogs’ happiness about living outdoors comes one additional bonus: “I always smell like a campfire,” Mohan notes.

Traci and Pete Olsen wanted a small house for themselves and their daughter, Audrey, eight. “Pete was intrigued by the Tiny House on Wheels concept,” Traci Olsen explains. ”Our needs extend beyond 400 square feet, though.” Pete Olsen hoped that extra space “for guests, an office and incidental storage” could be located on wheels.

“A Winnebago trailer parked on your lawn means you camp a lot,” Traci Olsen says. “An Airstream can be anything! I am still trying to convince him that we need to plant a flock of plastic pink flamingos in front of it.”

They found a 28-foot 1976 Airstream International on Craigslist. Its 1970s design spirit remains securely intact. “The sink has a nice bright orange cover over the top, for food prep and to keep all your dishes in when you are on the road,” Olsen explains. “[It has] lots of great, very ‘70s details, like a funky gold sparkle clock on the oven.”

Despite having no plans to take their Airstream on the road, the couple is enamored of its functionality and aesthetics. “Seeing how it’s designed has been inspirational in how we are designing our house. There is really quite a bit of space inside,” Olsen says.

The presence of the Airstream affects how Olsen envisions their new house. “I feel like the Airstream takes the pressure off our house to be everything for us,” she says. The primary space won’t require so much alteration when guests come. “It’s also a great focal point for the back yard.”

Kurt Heidinger discovered a Chesterfield cabin the way he’s stumbled across many of his favorite spots around the Valley—accompanied by campers. Heidinger runs Biocitizen, an environmental education program. “We’d gone tubing down the river past the 143 Bridge in West Chesterfield near the Indian Hollow Army Corps Campground,” he recalls. The cabin at the end of a long dirt road was for sale. “One of my campers called out that Biocitizen should buy it as headquarters. The place was a mess. The land was overgrown and neglected. But the spot was so beautiful, I was sure some city person on the lookout for a getaway place would snatch it up.

“I didn’t think about it again,” Heidinger adds, “until the end of the summer. I wondered whatever happened to it. We turned out to be the only people to even look.” A dam was close by and, not much farther off, the Westfield River. “There’s about 20 square miles of dedicated open space surrounding it, which enables plenty of wildlife to thrive. It’s tremendous.”

Heidinger put his environmental educator hat on and studied the land. “The location is like an archaeological site,” he says. “It turns out that Harper’s Magazine ran a story on what a beautiful spot Indian Hollow Road was way back in 1892. The road never got developed. There was a multicultural community that included a Native American homeopathic doctor; apparently Homer Merriam, printer [of the Merriam Webster dictionary], was cured of chronic dyspepsia by an Indian doctress.”

The foundation of that house is still standing, notes Heidinger. Although the camper’s idea—using the cabin as home base for Biocitizen’s summer weeks—turned out to be too complicated given insurance regulations and safety codes, Heidinger and family couldn’t resist the cabin’s lure. So while the environmentalist educator busily explores the territory, the cabin has become a retreat they all enjoy, and rent out.

“First I stripped back everything inside and found original floorboards and post and beam construction,” Heidinger recalls. “The skeleton of the house had real integrity. We lightened it up, kept it all very simple. An architect friend, Kevin McKlurkan, was visiting from New York and over a couple of glasses of red wine, he and my wife started to play around with ideas. He suggested that we move a staircase and that made a huge difference.”

The previous owners had had a television dish. “To my children’s initial dismay, I removed it,” Heidinger explains. “This spot is unplugged. People coming from the city really need that. So do we, even from Westhampton. This place is about the ability to experience the simple sensations. You drink a lot of tea. You open the windows and listen to the fizzy sounds the nearby river makes, and you close the windows and take in the quiet.”•

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