HOUSE AND HOME: Sheila and Bill Nichols took the do-it-yourself approach for their retirement home

The back of Bill and Sheila Nichols’ home, facing the fire pit and patio. 

The back of Bill and Sheila Nichols’ home, facing the fire pit and patio.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

The hand-drawn sketch of the Nichols home. 

The hand-drawn sketch of the Nichols home.  COURTESY IMAGE BY FIRST DAY COTTAGES

Bill Nichols holds up the hand-drawn architectural plans from First Day Cottages they used to build their home, as Sheila Nichols looks on.

Bill Nichols holds up the hand-drawn architectural plans from First Day Cottages they used to build their home, as Sheila Nichols looks on. STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

A sign from the property’s days as part of a Greenfield summer camp. 

A sign from the property’s days as part of a Greenfield summer camp.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Bill and Sheila Nichols with their raised-bed vegetable garden. 

Bill and Sheila Nichols with their raised-bed vegetable garden.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

The back door of the Nichols home, with bedroom wing on the right and utility wing on the left. 

The back door of the Nichols home, with bedroom wing on the right and utility wing on the left.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

The entrance of the Nichols home, with an enclosed sunroom. 

The entrance of the Nichols home, with an enclosed sunroom.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

The main room of the Nichols home. 

The main room of the Nichols home.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

The main hallway with tinted cement floors leading to the bedroom wing. 

The main hallway with tinted cement floors leading to the bedroom wing.  STAFF PHOTO BY JESSECA TIMMONS

Bill Nichols, center, raises the walls of the house with family and friends in 2018. 

Bill Nichols, center, raises the walls of the house with family and friends in 2018.  COURTESY PHOTO BY BILL NICHOLS

Bill Nichols, right, and Sheila Nichols constructing the frame of their home in 2018. 

Bill Nichols, right, and Sheila Nichols constructing the frame of their home in 2018.  COURTESY PHOTO BY BILL NICHOLS

Sheila Nichols, right, feeds out plastic tubing used for the radiant floor heat in summer 2018. 

Sheila Nichols, right, feeds out plastic tubing used for the radiant floor heat in summer 2018.  COURTESY PHOTO BY BILL NICHOLS

By JESSECA TIMMONS

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript

Published: 05-23-2024 10:47 AM

“A lot of people will tell you they built their house themselves,” said Sheila Nichols of Greenfield as she led of tour of her home at the base of Crotched Mountain Road. “But we really did build this house ourselves. We sawed every board, and we nailed every nail.”

Sheila (who is a part-time sales and marketing manager for the Ledger-Transcript) and her husband, Bill, with help from their four sons and extended family and friends, built their 1,200-square-foot Greenfield retirement home themselves, without a builder or general contractor. 

“This house is not from a kit, and it’s not a prefab. All we had was handwritten plans from our architect,” Sheila said. “We did use some subcontractors, like for some of the plumbing. But the plumber lent us his tools and we did a lot of that ourselves, too.” 

Sheila credits Bill, who had built a previous house alongside a contractor friend, with having the skills to build the house solely based off  the architect’s plans.

“I married MacGyver,” Sheila said. 

The Nicholses worked with First Day Cottage, a small, family-owned architecture firm based in Walpole. While First Day also sells house kits, the Nichols purchased custom plans based on the standard First Day “T house” design, but calculated and purchased all the materials themselves.

“They usually calculate an ‘overage’ for wood when people build houses, because people always make mistakes and need extra wood. We didn’t need any of the overage. We didn’t have any big mistakes. We used the overage wood to build our shed and our chicken coop,” Sheila said.

Before moving to Greenfield, the Nicholses lived on 100-year-old Liberty Farm in Antrim, where they had sheep, chickens and extensive gardens. Bill grew up in Antrim, and his family has been there for generations. Both Bill and Sheila wanted to stay near Antrim, where Bill is still involved in the Antrim Players and the Antrim Historical Society, and three of their children are still in the Monadnock region.

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Knowing they wanted to downsize and age in place, the Nicholses started thinking about building their own home.

“We had this big house at Liberty Farm, and everyone said it would be hard to give that up. But then we measured how much of the house we actually used, especially in the winter, and it was about 950 square feet,” Sheila said. “So then we knew we really didn’t need all the space we had.”

“We looked at so many lots, all over the Monadnock region. We did use a site surveyor help us find a good spot. When he saw this lot, he said, ‘Do it!” Bill says.

The 5½-acre property is a partly level, partly sloped wooded lot at the site of an old summer camp, and is walking distance from the Greenfield town beach on Sunset Lake. The Nicholses, who have three dogs and two cats, enjoy walking the old logging roads that connect with the trail network on Crotched Mountain.

As soon as they found the lot on Crotched Mountain Road, they put Liberty Farm on the market, in fall 2017. 

“We thought we would probably have the winter to stay there before it sold, but then Liberty Farm sold in four days! We closed on the new lot the same week,” Bill said.

Suddenly without a home, the Nicholses bought a fifth-wheel camper, built a pad and hookups and parked it on their new lot.

They lived in the camper for 14 months while they built the new house. 

“That turned out to be a really good thing. We were always here, so we probably got a lot more work done than we would have if we were driving in from somewhere else,” Bill said.

Both Nicholses said one of the toughest parts of the whole project was installing the plastic coils for the radiant floor heat under the entire footprint of the house. The coils had to be set in sand, covered with rebar, stapled and then sealed with concrete in the hottest part of the summer of 2018.

“The lake saved us. We jumped in every night when we were done working,” Bill said. 

“We really wanted to be in by Christmas 2018, so the grandkids could come. We got through Thanksgiving still in the camper, and I said, ‘I don’t care if we spend Christmas sitting on a concrete pad and huddled around space heaters and eating turkey sandwiches – we are not having it in the camper,’” Sheila said. 

“We were chipping ice off the house by the time put the last few boards up. Sheila was shoveling the snow away so I could hammer,” Bill recalled. 

As soon as they moved into the house, the Nicholses sold the camper. 

“We were happy never to see it again,” Bill said. “The house felt like a palace when we moved in.” 

The home has enough solar panels to provide 80% of the electricity. Tankless water heaters run the radiant floor heat throughout the house and provide hot water on demand, and the house runs entirely off electricity.

“Even if the power goes off  or there’s an emergency, the floor stays pretty warm once it’s heated up. It never gets really cold. That was a really nice thing to find out that first  winter,” Sheila said. 

Bill and Sheila explained that the house was constructed “inside out,” starting with the interior frame work to support the roof and th e walls, and building out through the foundation, interior walls, electrical, insulation and siding. When it came time to raise the frame, the Nicholses hosted friends and family for an all-day work session

“All our sons were here , a bunch of our friends, and we had a big cookout, and we got all the bents up,” Sheila said. “It was like an old-fashioned barn raising. Everyone helped, and we did it.”