Off the wall

Published 6:49 pm Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Chris and Pete Doiron sit on their golf cart at Davis Lakes Campground, near their motor home. The couple has taken the RV to 48 states, but always returns to Suffolk during the summer.

Some folks take a creative approach to shelter

Almost every home, even the newest one, has some quirky thing about it that makes it unique in its owner’s eyes.

Maybe the bathroom door sticks, the stove overheats by 25 degrees, or the faucet handle must be turned a certain way to keep it from dripping. Maybe there’s a hole in the ceiling, or that floorboard that everyone knows not to step on when others are sleeping.

But unless you share your home with the dead, can sit on your roof with your feet on the ground or drive your home around the country, your humble abode really isn’t that unusual, after all, at least not when compared to the Suffolk homes featured on the following pages.

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The quietest neighbors

Benny and Betty Sue Plewes in their living room of their apartment above Parr Funeral Home.

Benny and Betty Sue Plewes live in a modest two-bedroom, second-floor apartment with a balcony off Pruden Boulevard. They’re both retired, but they work part-time for their landlord.

The couple, married for 26 years, say they enjoy the apartment where they moved in 2007. There’s ample parking and a short commute to work. Above all, the neighbors are quiet.

That’s because the Pleweses’ apartment is on the second floor of Parr Funeral Home.

“I tell people we’re overtakers, instead of undertakers,” Benny jokes.

The couple agreed to move when Charles Parr was building his new funeral home. Benny has worked as a funeral attendant for Parr since he retired.

The couple was looking to downsize, anyway. It was a perfect fit.

“It’s been a good working arrangement here,” said Betty Sue, who often helps with office work at the funeral home.

Indeed, what some folks would consider a morbid arrangement actually benefits all parties. The Pleweses have the convenience of apartment living and a work commute that consists of a staircase and a hallway. The funeral home gets a 24-hour guard.

Of course, there are inconveniences, as well. Betty Sue has to keep track of the schedule downstairs so she knows not to cook aromatic foods during a service. They have to park at the edge of the lot during visitations. And they must tread carefully when they know there are people downstairs — living ones, that is.

But then there are some things that are downright spooky — like when Benny was alone one night and awoke to a knock at his apartment door. He answered to find a police officer at the foot of the stairs. Apparently, a side door to the funeral home had been left unlocked.

“Most of our customers don’t knock on the door,” Benny joked.

But the Pleweses frequently assist people who come knocking. Many visitors on the weekend are looking for the state veterans’ cemetery up the road.

Unsurprisingly, the Pleweses often get odd reactions when they tell folks where they live. Some even ask if they can smell the crematory. “There’s absolutely no fumes or odors,” Betty Sue said.

The only thing she’s dying for is a better view. She has dressed up her kitchen window with plants outside and crafted a sitting area on the flat roof outside her door.

But if the novelty of living above a funeral home ever gets old, they have only to think of the end-of-life conveniences it offers.

“Benny always jokes that if he dies, all I’ve got to do is kick him down the steps,” Betty Sue said.

The Underhill Residence

Gail Barker in front of her vegetable garden, where she grows much of the family’s food.

Gail Barker and her four sons love to have people over.

There’s a constant stream of visitors through their home off White Marsh Road, and the pool always has room for a few more guests.

“I grew up having parties,” Barker said. “My parents had lots of parties.”

So when she and her boys, ages 11 to 20, were looking for a new place, they knew it had to have lots of room.

They got that, and a whole lot more.

The family is renting a home built by Larry and Melina Winterton, now California transplants. Known as the Earthship, the home is specially designed to be environmentally friendly.

The home is partially insulated by a dirt hill built up the north side, from which Barker can step onto the roof. A greenhouse with a brick floor runs the entire south side of the home, harnessing heat for cold winter nights. Solar panels on the roof power the water heater. And a cistern collects rainwater to use in watering the garden.

“It really works,” said Barker, who moved to the home in April. “The energy costs are low. It’s been absolutely delightful living here.”

The family’s highest power bill comes in the summer, when it runs about $150. The home is much more difficult to cool than to heat.

The large family room and open kitchen provide plenty of space for gatherings and visitors. The boys also have a game room, which opens into four small bedrooms. Curtains cover each entrance, and everything from the paint to the posters reflects each boy’s individuality.

Barker wishes only for more storage space. She recently completed some upgrades that make that possible, but the greenhouse still plays host to stacks of books, yard supplies and everything in between.

“Everybody has weird things with their home, but with us it’s a little different,” Barker said. “We have to go home and let water out of the cistern because it’s rained.”

A mobile life

Pete Doiron and his wife Chris are no strangers to adventure.

They’ve visited 49 states and most of the national parks. They’ve made friends and followed bluegrass festivals all over the country.

And they did it all behind the wheel of their home.

The couple, who both retired from Tidewater Community College, decided in 2002 to buy an RV and see the country on four wheels. They’ve undertaken two big trips out west, one of which included a cruise to Alaska. Most shorter trips are up and down the East Coast.

But they almost always return to Davis Lakes Campground in Suffolk for the summer. The kids and grandkids are here.

“We’ve been to an awful lot of places,” Pete said. Both agreed they could never pick a favorite.

The RV offers all of the creature comforts — water and sewer hookups, a fridge and stove, bathroom, bedroom and even a sofa. The postal service even delivers, with their children acting as conduits.

“We have everything that your house has,” Chris said, “just in a smaller capacity.”

Living in a motor home does require attention to organization. “Everything has to be in its place,” Chris said. Even the microwave stores kitchen supplies when it’s not in use.

There’s hardly a downside to their home-on-the-road — except, perhaps, that it can’t reach the 50th state.

“I don’t think we’ll get the motor home to Hawaii, but maybe someday we can get there,” Chris said.

Aside from its inability to fly or float, only the price of diesel fuel for the motor home’s 128-gallon tank and its generator can cramp the Doirons’ RVing style.

But even that’s a small price to pay for the freedom to move without having to pack.

“If you’re not happy where you’re at, you just turn the key and take off,” Chris said.