Driftless Home and Garden: Close to family- Uhlenhakes keep their priorities straight in Ossian home construction

By Zach Jensen,

The Josh and Samantha Uhlenhake family is pictured, in front of their new home.

For most people, part of the stress of building a new house comes from trying to communicate with complete strangers about issues that could affect a family’s happiness and safety for years to come. That stress didn’t exist for Josh and Samantha Uhlenhake when building their new house in Ossian because they knew many of the names and faces doing the work. 

“When we started thinking about building in Ossian, our first call was to friend and former classmate, Dave Moellers, owner of Ossian Lumber,” Samantha said.

Both Josh and Samantha are South Winneshiek graduates — as were many of the contractors that helped construct their home, including their cabinetmaker, electricians, their painter and their builder Justin Bohr, son of Randy Bohr of Bohr Builders of Ossian. Josh and Samantha said their new home, on Bravo Drive in Ossian, was Randy’s final construction before he passed away in 2023 after multiple bouts with cancer. Randy’s son Justin has since taken over the business. 

“Bohr Builders was absolutely amazing,” said Samantha. “They were very patient and helpful. They also built my parents’ house, and they built my sister’s house. So, it was nice having them do ours as well.”

Prior to building their new home in 2021, Josh, Samantha and their four children lived in Waukee, where the couple had built a home, and where they planned to stay at that time.

“We lived in a two-story we’d built, when we lived in Waukee,” said Samantha. “It was a three-bedroom house, so the boys were sharing a bedroom. Jordyn was only six months old, but the girls would have shared also. We outgrew that house. A friend of ours finished our basement in that house, and right before COVID, I had him come back and told him we’ve outgrown, and we need an addition. And, he said ‘You’re not going to get what you want. Just find land and build the house that you actually want.’ So, we that’s what we did.”

Josh, a mortgage loan officer with Luana Savings Bank’s (LSB) Clive branch at the time, was eventually able to transfer to the bank’s Ossian branch, which prompted the family to consider moving back to the area. Josh said LSB also offered additional financing incentives, such as lower-than-market interest rates for new construction. Additionally, the City of Ossian has a tax abatement of up to 10 years, which also helped make the build more affordable. 

“We looked at existing houses up here,” said Josh, “but for the size of our family, that’s really not an option.”

“And, I’m picky,” added Samantha, Vice President of Finance for Diligent Development of Des Moines. “So, with the development happening right back here behind my parents’ house, we decided to build. This land used to be a cornfield. We used to have fires in my parents’ back yard, looking out at the cornfield, never imagining that this would be our house someday.”

The Uhlenhakes decided on a plot in the Military Trail Estates addition on Ossian’s southwest side. Although they’d already built one house together, they might not have been ready for the overwhelming number of choices they were about to have in the construction of their Ossian home.

“We went through the build process before, with our Waukee house, and with that specific builder, we didn’t have limitless options,” Samantha said. “The Waukee house had a custom package, so there were a lot less decisions to make. Then, when we built this one, we had to make a decision on everything.”

Josh admitted that he didn’t have a lot of say in how the house was designed, built or furnished.

“He didn’t want a say in it,” Samantha quipped. “I spent dozens of hours pouring over the house plans, and anytime I asked him what he thought, he’d stay out of it … until it was done and built, and then it’s like, ‘Man, I wish I could have a golf simulator’ or ‘Man, I wish it would have a card room,’ and I’m like ‘Too late now.’ We didn’t argue a whole lot. He pretty much let me do what I wanted, because he knew I’d get my way eventually anyhow.”

But, before the couple could break ground on their new construction, they first had to agree to the terms of the new neighborhood’s covenant — a set of rules that govern the use of real property.

“Where we came from, it’s not a big deal to see covenants in a development,” Josh said about Waukee and the Des Moines area. “It’s pretty standard.”

“These are about the least-restrictive covenants I’ve ever seen,” added Samantha. The covenants require a minimum square-footage of living space, a basement (finished or not) and a stone exterior, and requires that no storage buildings or gardening sheds be placed on the property. 

“Covenants protect the value of the homeowners house,” said Samantha, “so that when other people build around us, they’re set to the same standards. It’s just a different concept up here.”

With the covenants signed, it was time to get busy building – with just one caveat: throughout the entire construction of their new house in Ossian, Josh and Samantha would continue living in Waukee – 200 miles away. This meant they wouldn’t be on-hand to answer questions and oversee the building process.

“We were living in Waukee, while this house was being built,” Josh said. “So, the builder would call us and ask us ‘Where do you want this?’ And, we were like ‘I don’t know. We’re not there to make that decision.’”

“That was the biggest challenge about being in Waukee, when the house was being built,” Samantha added. “We couldn’t just stop by and talk with the contractors.”

All challenges aside however, Samantha had a clear understanding of her priorities for the design of her new house: comfort and convenience. 

These two priorities are what guided her to choose a design that favors built-in and often-hidden cabinets (courtesy of Reed Backes Woodworking), closets and storage areas — as well as built-in modular closet systems in all the kids’ bedrooms to help make it easier to keep the rooms clean, while keeping their closets well-organized.

However, Samantha admitted she did make one mistake while designing the basement.

“I was very adamant in that I didn’t want all kinds of storage,” she remembered. “They kept saying, ‘Finish underneath the porch. Put storage under there. You’ll never regret it.’ They finally talked me into it, but it was after the initial plan.”

The result was the creation of a separate laundry room and an adjacent bathroom with the entrance to the below-the-porch storage room in between; whereas, if the plans were changed to accommodate the new storage area, the entrance to the storage room would have been through the laundry room, which would have created more space for all three rooms.

“If I would have listened to the builder and my dad from the start,” Samantha said, “the layout would have worked better.”

But, for the most part, Samantha feels the rest of the house is almost perfect.  

The flooring in the basement and garage also have in-floor heat in the basement and garage, installed by Marv Smith Electric, who also completed the plumbing and complete HVAC. Instead of the heating coils of decades ago, the Uhlenhakes’ floors have heated water that runs through tubing under the floor in the basement and garage. 

“When we finished the basement of house in Waukee, it was cold down there,” Josh said. “So, we figured, hey, if our kids are going to be sleeping down there, we need a decent heat source down there. In-floor heat is worth it. There are thermostats in the basement and garage, so you can set your temperature, and then warm water circulates under the floors.”

“Another one of our favorite parts of the house is our pantry,” Samantha said. “People thought I was crazy for wanting this, and I had to argue to get it. We put in a grocery door so when I park my car in the garage, I can slide the groceries right on in here. It was a bit of a battle. Everyone thought I was nuts.”

“It was hard finding the door, too,” Josh added, “it has to be fire-rated, because it leads out to the garage. A lot of the large show houses in Des Moines had them, and that’s where we got the idea.”

The Uhlenhakes’ pantry is one-stop for non-refrigerated food items and contains a mix of deep counters, a deep-freeze, extensive drawers and shelves, a coffee bar and place for small appliances. “So, instead of having a toaster and all that stuff on the counter in the kitchen, it’s all in here,” Josh said, “and all we have to do to not see it is close the door.”

Since Samantha is able to work remotely, she has a home office tailor-fit to her needs and specifications.

“I didn’t know that I was going to be able to work remotely when we put the plans together,” she said. “Had I known that I would have made my office bigger, but it works. I wanted the office in the front of the house. I wanted to be able to look out the window,” Samantha continued. “I see when UPS comes and when people walk or drive by. Out the window, I can see the park, so the kids can ride their bikes to the park, and I can still see them.”

Samantha and Josh also decided to have an electric fireplace, from Hearthside Fireplaces & More of Decorah, installed in Samantha’s office, so she didn’t need to rely on the home’s gas heat during the colder seasons.

“We built our house in 2021, in that insanely-cold winter, and this room is the furthest from our furnace, so it’s the coldest room, which I realized very quickly when I started working from my home office in January before the construction was even complete,” Samantha said. “So, we added the electric fireplace. And, we added acoustic panels, because with hard-surface floors, there’s a lot of echoes, which can make Zoom calls difficult.”

Samantha also added an interior storage area just inside the door to the garage, off the kitchen. This area is a staging area where family put on or take off their outerwear, hang keys, store their homework, charge their devices and more.

“This was a Pinterest idea,” she said. “I don’t like a lot of storage, but I like hidden storage. So, we have the cupboards that flip up and the drawers where all the shoes go and the baskets for all the papers that come home from school, so it doesn’t look so cluttered.”

The master bath also features built-in cabinets by Reed Backes, which contain outlets and charging stations for personal hygiene tools, like electric toothbrushes, which would otherwise be stored on chargers next to the sink.

Unlike the rest of the house, the master bathroom is also the only room that isn’t painted gray. Instead, it’s a dark shade of blue. Samantha said, “I was so tired of making decisions. I did not want to decide any more paint colors than I had to.”

Josh said, “We loved the gray tile color, but there would have been way too much gray in here, so we decided to do a different color in the bathroom.” G&R Tiling of Ossian installed the Uhlenhake’s tile and hard surface flooring.

“By the time we thought to compare the tile we picked out with the wall color and realized it was all gray, it was easier to change the paint color in the room than start all over picking out tile again,” 

Construction on the Uhlenhakes’ new home began in May 2021, and while Josh and Samantha are very grateful for all the work their vendors put in, they agreed it was sometimes challenging to build a house just one year after COVID came to the United States. 

“After COVID, prices fluctuated a lot, and the supply chain was out of whack,” Samantha said. “It also limited some of our selection. So, for our flooring, they asked if we could wait a year for it, and we couldn’t, so it was like ‘Nope, can’t get that floor.’ So, that changed some of the things we had picked out.”

“This was the original floor that we picked out, but we weren’t sure that we were going to get it,” Josh added. “We had to have a backup, and we didn’t like the backup quite as much as this one. We ran into the same supply chain issues with appliances on back-order for more than a year and other items were also hard to get like garage doors.” 

On Dec. 30, 2021, the Uhlenhakes moved to Ossian, but their new house wasn’t quite ready. So, for two weeks, the family lived with Samantha’s parents, Mark and Cathy Brincks, who live on the other side of Josh and Samantha’s back yard. 

“We lived with my parents for two weeks, and we love my parents, and they love us, but that was a lot for everybody,” Samantha said with a laugh. “Even when we moved in, it was still a work in progress. Our downstairs shower was working, but the tile wasn’t done in the shower upstairs, so we all had to shower downstairs for a couple weeks. We ate all of our meals at my parents’ house, because our appliances hadn’t arrived yet, and we didn’t have kitchen counter-tops or a kitchen sink with running water.” 

But, in the end, the family couldn’t be happier with their new home — not only because of its features and amenities but because of its location as well. Living in Ossian means the Uhlenhake children will grow up in the close-knit South Winneshiek Community School District in which they will enjoy smaller class sizes and more opportunities to participate in extra-curricular activities. And, more importantly, they’re close to Samantha’s and Josh’s parents.

“My parents live right on the other side of this lot,” Samantha said. “That’s a big reason we picked this specific lot in this development. The kids can run back and forth from our house to theirs and not have to worry about running through anyone else’s yard.” 

“One of the bigger selling points of moving back here was being close to our families,” Josh said. “Her parents live next door, and my parents live in Calmar. Having grandparents around for their grandkids was very important to us.”

“I do miss the Des Moines metro but I still travel back there for work at least once or twice a month for a few days and having family close by to be involved with the kids’ has been amazing,” Samantha added. “Josh’s parents help out so much, especially when I’m traveling for work. My parents get lots of babysitting opportunities as well. The one thing in life we will never regret is having an opportunity to give our kids more time with family.” 


Many more photos in the April 16 Driftless Journal.

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