State College, PA - Centre County - Central Pennsylvania - Home of Penn State University

A Tale of Two Houses

by on May 16, 2018 5:00 AM

One of the things I like about my house is the way the foliage along the backyard fence screens out the surrounding houses. Thus embowered, we can pretend we live in a cottage in the woods even as we are able to walk to campus for work or to Chumley’s for a shot of Angel’s Envy.

Fairytales never last, though. Someone was bound to buy the vacant lot behind us and when they did, trees would have to fall so that a house could rise.

When the inevitable happened, we were grateful it was winter: With windows closed against the cold, the roars of chainsaws and earth movers were bearable. 

Still, it’s hard to be happy when someone is felling trees.

One day, I walked around the block to inspect the site and was surprised to see one man, who turned out to be the owner, doing all the work himself. No, he wasn’t a contractor or in the building trades and no, he had never built a house before. 

Ashwath “Ash” Gowda is a network engineer at Penn State – a software guy, not a hardware guy. His wife, Nivedita “Nita” Nagachar, is a molecular biologist. After eight years in a State College townhouse, they wanted a plot of ground they could call their own. They also wanted a custom-built house -- but not at custom-built prices.

“Why can’t we build it ourselves?” Nita asked.

Because, any sane person might have told them, you’ve never done it before. Did anyone think they were crazy?

“A lot of people,” Ash said.

Undaunted, the couple designed their future home with SketchUp, a 3D modeling program that Ash assured me was easy to use. 

The only phases of the project they decided to contract out were the excavation at the start and the roofing at the finish. Immediately, there were problems. It was never good digging weather, as far as the excavator was concerned. When Ash complained about the mounting costs and delays, the guy suggested that if Ash didn’t like the way things were done here in America, he should go back to his own country. 

It was the second time in the past few weeks that I had heard a local story about a Euro-American treating a legal immigrant from some other part of the world like they did not belong here. (Ash and Nita have green cards; Anagha, their 6-year-old daughter, was born here.)

Ash grew up on a farm in south India, so “I knew a little carpentry,” he said. In India, he had used only hand tools. His attitude toward power tools is like his attitude toward SketchUp: They make hard work easy. The day I interviewed him, he was operating a backhoe. No, he had never run one before.  

“I enjoy the learning,” he said, grinning like a kid with a new toy.


As winter bled into spring it became clear that there had been two wooded lots on the block behind my house, not one. While Ash and Nita continued to work on their subfloor, on the adjacent property a house sprang up like bamboo. 

A neighbor teased Ash about losing the race. When the house next door falls down, he replied, his will still be standing. 

The house next door, like most residential construction in this part of the world, is stick-built: It hangs on a wooden frame. Ash and Nita’s house is made of insulated concrete forms (ICF). White Expanded PolyStyrene blocks, similar to the stuff beer coolers and foam peanuts are made of, provide the insulation. Concrete forms the floors and walls.

Where did they get the idea to build this kind of house? “I read a book,” Ash said. It wasn’t “The Three Little Pigs.”

Nita likes the concrete floors because they’ll absorb the noise and vibrations of Anagha’s footfalls as she bounces around the house. The couple also say their house will retain heat longer in winter and stay cooler in summer, so it will be more energy efficient than a stick-built house.

The guys working on the S&A Homes project next door didn’t disagree. An Amish guy who was pouring a walkway the other day said, “It’s going to be a good, tight house.”

And S&A project manager Joe Ladrido admires Ash for going it alone. 

“I think it’s great,” he said. “More power to him as a homeowner building it himself.”

Ladrido said it take a dozen or so workers about 150 days to build an S&A house, which means the residents will be able to move in by mid-summer. Ash and Nita hope to occupy their house by the end of the year, almost two years after they started.

Not bad, considering they’re doing most of the work on weekends and after 5 p.m. on weekdays, that they’re doing it alone, and that they’ve never done it before.

“It’s been a transforming experience,” Ash said, smiling again.

Ash and Nita’s passion and pluck have won me over. I’ve even forgiven them for cutting down those trees.

A collection of Russell Frank's columns from the past 20 years, titled “Among the Woo People: A Survival Guide for Living in a College Town," is available from the Penn State University Press. His columns for won second place in the Humor category in the 2018 National Society of Newspaper Columnists writing contest. The winning columns: One Day at the Zombie Apocalypse Poultry Auction, Deux Nuits à Paris: A French Farce and A Shaggy Dog Story. Frank is a member of the journalism faculty at Penn State. Before launching his academic career, he worked as a reporter, editor and columnist at newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years. He is, by academic training, a folklorist (Ph.D., UPenn), which means, when you strip away the academic jargon, that he loves a good story. His views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State University.
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