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Work in progress: Merle Rabenberg constructing majority of his family's new residence with own hands

WORTHINGTON -- Three and a half years ago, Merle and Diane Rabenberg and their two daughters had moved into their new home, located on Minnesota 266, just east of Wilmont, even though it was bare-bones construction. Appliances had been hooked up in the kitchen area, but there were no walls, only studs. They had beds to sleep upon, but no closets in which to store clothes.

Today, all the rooms have walls, and there's an arched pantry in the kitchen. Two bathrooms are completely finished, and daughters Ellen and Beth both have fully decorated bedrooms, even though they are both off at colleges. There's a comfy family room area with a wood-encased fireplace and flat-screen TV hanging above, as well as an office-den area painted a brilliant blue. Outside, a wooddeck porch wraps almost completely around the structure, ending in a patio made from variegated cement pavers.

According to Merle and Diane, the house is about 70 percent completed, but there is still much work to be done. It's been a slow and painstaking process, since Merle has done the bulk of the work with his own two hands, with decorating assistance from Diane and daughters.

Weekend is prime time for working on the house, since Merle is employed by a local propane supplier, and Diane is a surgical technician at Worthington Regional Hospital.

"You always have goals you want to accomplish," reflected Merle. "To us, it seems like we don't get anything done."

"But somebody who hasn't been here for a while can see the progress," added Diane.

A Wilmont area native and graduate of Worthington High School, Merle spent 21 years on active duty -- a machinist by trade -- with the Air Force. That career took the Rabenberg family to bases around the world, with lengthy stays in Germany, the Middle East and Southeast Asia. After he retired, they decided to move back to the Wilmont area while their daughters were still young enough to establish roots.

The house is situated on the same land where Merle grew up; the original structure deteriorated to the point where it had to be torn down. The Rabenbergs found a set of blueprints they liked, somewhat reminiscent of German architecture with two castle-like turrets, and were determined to go with concrete construction, which is commonly used in European homes. With the wind a dominant force in southwest Minnesota, they knew the concrete walls would diminish noise to a minimum and keep the house warm in the winter and cool in the summer.

A friend dug the basement for the foundation, and Merle called upon tradesmen and contractors whenever some aspect of the project went beyond his capabilities. For instance, woodworker and neighbor Isaac Joens fashioned the kitchen cabinets and the fireplace surround.

"Some things I just don't want to tackle," he said. "If you respect the person's work, it's easier to write the check."

Areas left to be completed include flooring through most of the main living spaces, the formal living and dining areas, front entry, master suite, stairs and landings. The master bedroom and bathroom have been Merle's "winter project," although it will probably extend well into spring and maybe even summer. He and Diane have taken up residence in the guest bedroom area in the meantime.

The master suite includes a bathroom, situated in one of the turret spaces, with whirlpool tub and spacious shower, bedroom area and sitting room. The tub has yet to be installed, but the space has been painted light blue, and it's already taken on a beachy feel. One of the other luxury items they included is a large fan, situated over the tub, which is also a heater. All the home's bathrooms, including the two that are already completed, utilize a radiant heating system in the floor.

"It's a piece of plastic under the tile that heats itself to 80 degrees," Merle explained. "... I bought it with the eventual notion of using 24 volt batteries, which could be charged by a wind generator. This place will never be completely self-sustaining, but I want to get it as close as possible."

Although they've included duct work for furnace and air-conditioning systems, the only heating system currently in place is in-floor, hot-water heat in the basement; a fan cycles the warm air throughout the building. Merle and Diane admit it can get a bit chilly on 20-below-zero days, but they can easily get warmed up by standing on the always-warm tiles in one of the bathrooms.

The work-in-progress tactic of building a home has been both frustrating and extremely satisfying for the Rabenbergs. In addition to the actual hands-on work, Merle has spent a lot of time figuring out the best way to accomplish certain things in the home, including working with some of the unusual angles created by the turrets.

"For the machinist side of me, it's not that hard. I've just got to have good blueprints," he said. "I think about it a lot. Sometimes you lay awake at night. The frustrating part for Diane is I don't get as much done as I should. ... I am sick of living in my own home as a transient."

Thus far, there's been only one real disappointment as their dream house has become a reality -- the closets aren't as big as they seemed on the blueprint. Otherwise, it's largely lived up to their expectations. Both Merle and Diane anticipate that their favorite parts of the home will be ones that are, as of yet, still unfinished.

"I think the master bath is going to be my favorite," said Diane, anticipating long soaks in the whirlpool tub with a warm breeze blowing overhead. "In the formal living room, there's going to be a spot in the corner where I can just sit and look out," said Merle. "That's going to be my favorite, but it will be the last finished."

EDITOR'S NOTE: In September of 2004, the Daily Globe's fall Builders section featured a home being built by Merle and Diane Rabenberg in rural Wilmont. Merle Rabenberg was building the house largely by himself, and this is an update on the progress that's been made since that time.

Beth Rickers

Beth Rickers is the veteran in the newspaper staff with 25 years as the Daily Globe's Features Editor. Interests include cooking, traveling and beer tasting and making with her home-brewing husband, Bryan. She writes an Area Voices blog called Lagniappe, which is a Creole term that means "a little something extra." It can be found at  

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