The Owner-Builders

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Everyone knows about owner-builders—those brave folks who design and build their own homes. We admire them because they have avoided mediocre conventional housing to produce unique living environments suited to their individual needs. They express an urge each of us has had since early childhood. Anyone who as a child rummaged for materials to build hideout huts, tree houses, or earthen dugouts will appreciate the excitement of the owner-builder experience. While the grown-up version of this experience may be more rigorous, the rewards of emotional satisfaction and pride that come with designing and building your own “place” are akin to the childhood experience. In fact, for most of us there are few undertakings in life that offer as much potential for personal growth, financial gain, and down-to-earth practical advantage as does designing and building your own home.

Building a house is not for everyone, but any man or woman who has the motivation and the persistence to get the required education—and who will take the time to properly organize the project—can be an owner-builder. If you have ever doodled an idea for a dream house, or if you are in the market for a new home but can't find the “right” house on the market, then give owner-building a closer look.

Shelter is a basic human need, and each of us, if we stop and think about it, has unique ideas about what makes us feel sheltered and at home. Unfortunately, much of the housing available today is designed and built by people who have little more than a marketing or financial interest in the homes they produce. This may be one reason why owner-building has become so widespread. According to the Census Bureau, 38 % of all new single-family American homes in 2005 were built wholly or in part by their owners.

WHY BUILD YOUR OWN HOME?

We are housing professionals. One of us is a licensed architect and the other is the director of the California Owner-Builder Center. When we started working with owner-builders, we assumed they were motivated primarily by the economics of the housing market. Because owner-builders can save 20 % or more by acting as their own contractors, and because the average cost of a new home is increasing so rapidly, we thought most of our clients were people who couldn’t afford a home any other way. We were wrong. Most owner-builders take the project on because they want to, not because they have to. Their reasons for becoming owner-builders are instructive, and are echoed in the results of a recent nationwide survey of owner-builders conducted by Rodale’s New Shelter magazine (now titled Rodale’s Practical Homeowner).

Only 24 % of the survey respondents cited cost savings as their primary motivation for building a house, although most did save significant amounts of money, with an average savings of 38 % compared to purchasing a similar house. More than 26 % of the respondents reported that the primary reason they decided to build for themselves was that they had always wanted to live in a house they had personally designed and built.

Many owner-builders build innovative, unconventional, and energy-efficient homes. Only 43 % of those surveyed built homes with conventionally framed stud walls. Nearly one-third (32 %) built timber frames, 11 % built log homes, 4 % built domes, and 3 % constructed earth-sheltered designs. Respondents also reported that enviable amenities were incorporated into their homes—41 % had workshops, 25 % sport stained glass, and 23 % contain saunas, hot tubs, or Jacuzzis. These homes reflect a concern for comfort and energy efficiency that is seldom realized in commercially built homes.

Because owner-builders are free to choose the particular technologies to be employed in their houses, they can combine from broad palettes traditional building techniques and state-of-the-art technologies to create homes that are economical to build, comfortable to live in, and inexpensive to heat and cool. For example, timber framing can be combined with stress-skin insulating panels, blending old and new technologies into a system particularly well suited to owner-builders. We don’t mean to imply that all owner- builders use unconventional building techniques. Conventional materials can also serve your needs well. The point is simply that as owner-builder, the choice is yours.

Another big plus to owner-building is the control that you exercise over the quality of the home. If you are the boss, you can see to it that things get done correctly. Eighteen % of the survey respondents said they became owner-builders for this reason: They believed their houses would be of higher quality if they built the houses themselves. Owner- built homes tend to be less costly than comparable conventionally built homes, so owner- builders can use the money they save to buy higher-quality materials, such as ceramic tile, hardwood floors, solid-wood paneling and trim, and top-quality fixtures and hardware.

Owner-builders are an industrious group. The majority (69 %) of the survey respondents were employed either full- or part-time while they built their homes. Most of those (55 %), were employed full-time, and nearly half said their spouses also held full-time jobs during construction. They literally built their homes in borrowed moments during the week, on weekends, and during vacations! They are also a pragmatic group. Most used wood for heat, either as their primary source (62 %) or as backup (37 %), or they used some form of solar heat (65 %). Their houses are well insulated, with nearly a third rating their walls at R-22 or better and ceilings above R-35.

Financing can be difficult for owner-builders for a number of reasons, which we’ll discuss later. Given a choice between lending to a contractor, with a track record of bringing projects in on time and budget, or to a novice owner-builder, lenders are apt to choose the contractor. This doesn’t stop owner-builders from building their homes—they just figure out other ways to pay for it. Friends and family will often make loans with more competitive rates and more confidence in your abilities than will a banker. Only 34 % of the survey respondents used financing from lending institutions, while most relied primarily on their own savings.

Based on the survey and our own experience, we believe a profile of an average owner-builder would look something like this: A white married male in his thirties who has never built a house before, who makes between $35,000 and $60,000 a year, and who already owns a home. But this profile can be misleading. Our experience is that owner-builders represent all facets of society, including single women, grandparents, and low-income families. Because these people are highly motivated, they find ways around any obstacles that arise. Twenty-one % of those surveyed claimed that they encountered no major problems at all, while others listed the high cost of materials, their low basic construction skill level, and the difficulty of getting financing as obstacles. Only 20 % considered any of their problems to be major, except perhaps for the high cost of materials.

It should be clear by now that owner-builders are a resourceful group. Fully 55 % built the foundation themselves, 83 % did their own framing, 82 % laid the floors, 76 % installed their own doors and windows, 73 % did their own roofing, 55 % did their own electrical work, and 53 % plumbed the house themselves. Surprisingly, 89 % of the survey respondents did not get professional help to draw their designs.

Despite their high degree of self-reliance, most of the respondents got at least some help with their homebuilding projects. Even those diehards who dug their own excavations and mixed their own concrete called in family and friends at some point to help raise walls or frame the roof. Of the owner-builders surveyed, 74 % hired help to put in the driveway, 57 % hired a surveyor, 54 % bought cabinets or had someone build them, and 52 % hired out the excavation work. In fact, some of the owner-builders never picked up a tool at all, choosing instead to act as general contractors—coordinating the delivery of materials and scheduling the subcontractors who did the actual construction work. We will discuss this route more in a later section.

SOME ADVICE

Although most owner-builders we know consider their house-building project to be a major, positive event in their lives, they also admit that it did place a great deal of strain on - them and their families. Most are free with advice about things they wish they’d known when they started and about difficulties that could have been avoided with more planning.

First of all, no matter how long you think it’s going to take to build your house, it will take longer. Many owner-builders wish they had spent more time on planning and design. The amount of money you’ll save on your project and the ease with which you’ll accomplish it are more dependent on planning than any other factor. The time you spend designing and redesigning, exploring alternatives, estimating costs, shopping for “deals,” and studying other owner-builders’ experiences is the most valuable time you can spend. We find again and again that the people who ran into major problems and made expensive mistakes are the ones who didn’t do the necessary planning or didn’t want to spend the money to take a house-building class or consult with professionals.

It is always easier to rearrange walls, rooms, doors, or windows by erasing and redrawing them on paper than by moving them physically after the house has been framed. The only way we know of to avoid big, costly mistakes is to repeatedly think through the entire project until you feel like you could build the house in your sleep. Still, as construction proceeds, almost every builder discovers some details that require rethinking. The idea is to do enough preplanning so that these changes will be as small as possible. Because your project will undoubtedly cost more than you initially think, it’s wise to pad your budget with a safety margin. Try to plan positive surprises into your work.

If at all possible, postpone moving into the house until it’s finished. Living amid sawdust and lumber scraps adds substantially to the strain on individuals and families. When there isn’t an uncluttered spot in the house in which to relax for a while or to get away from the rest of the family, tempers can flare. Of course, since it may be difficult to maintain your existing residence, you may be forced to move into your unfinished new home prematurely. If this happens, finish one or two rooms to use as living quarters while working on the rest of the house. and try to budget enough money to treat yourselves periodically to a weekend at your favorite “second honeymoon” spot. Of the survey respondents, 62 % lived elsewhere while building, 25 % lived in a temporary structure or trailer on site, and 21 % succumbed to the temptation to move in before the house was done.

Finally, consider carefully how much of the work you can do yourself. it's generally considered good economics to do those jobs that (1) take the most labor, time, or money, but (2) interfere the least with your subcontractors’ work. This is not a hard and fast rule, however. There are jobs that we suggest you leave to professionals. For example, a mistake on a concrete pour can be costly and demoralizing at the outset of your project. We recommend hiring a pro to inspect the forms and help with the pour, and hiring a finisher for the concrete “flatwork” if you’re inexperienced in such work.

GETTING GOOD INFORMATION

We have done our best to present in this section the most up-to-date information on the various aspects of owner-building. Owner-builder products, publications, and organizations are more numerous than ever before. One of the best places to go for more information is your local owner-builder organization or school. The schools offer varying services, but they all share an orientation toward energy-efficient, intelligent housing that meets the needs of the occupants. Most offer classes, seminars, and work shops in all phases of the building process, as well as consultants who can help you work through the snags that you run into during the project. Many also act as informal ‘networking” centers, putting owner-builders in touch with each other, guiding them to useful government agencies and receptive lenders, and helping them find well-qualified architects, realtors, tradespeople, and other sources of expertise and information.

The first such school, Shelter Institute, was founded in 1974 in Bath, Maine. The largest school currently is the Owner-Builder Center in Fair Oakes, California. The Center gave the owner-builder movement a boost by training people interested in starting their own centers, and there are now over 30 such groups operating around the United States and Canada.

One cautionary note on working with owner-builder schools, especially those recently established: Before you pay your money to register for courses, check the credentials of the teachers, since there is no licensing procedure for teachers at owner-builder schools. it's up to you to verify that the teachers, like anyone else you turn to for advice and information, are competent and well grounded in real-world experience. Fortunately, our own experience is that employees at owner-builder schools tend to be highly motivated, as well as highly skilled. Still, it would be worth your while to talk with former students to get their evaluations of particular courses and teachers.

OUR BIASES

We bring certain biases this web site. We share them with you here to help you evaluate the information we present in the rest of the book. By knowing our underlying assumptions, you will be in a better position to decide whether you agree with our specific recommendations.

Building a house for yourself may seem like a new and revolutionary concept, but only since modern times have most people not built their own houses. To some, this is liberation, just as not having to work the land for food seems to be liberation. But we believe such liberation is illusory: Giving control of the design and construction of our personal living environments to an impersonal housing industry is actually a loss of control, a real loss of freedom.

Personal participation in determining the form of the houses we inhabit is more important than most people understand. The interplay between people and their living environments is a classic chicken-and-egg story. We design and erect buildings, shaping them as we see fit. But then we dwell in these buildings, and the quality of our lives is deeply influenced by them. In recent decades, we have given up control of our home environments to architects, contractors, developers, tradespeople, and bureaucrats who, however well intentioned, are too remote from us to understand our individual needs. When building standardized housing units, developers concentrate on speed and efficiency to maximize profits, and therefore they avoid involving the homeowners in the process, since this could cause delays.

We don’t claim that the owner-building movement is a cure for all the world’s problems, but it can help reestablish local self-reliance. Before that can happen, however, the network of owner-builders needs to be strengthened and broadened, and this is our challenge in the next decades. Owner-builders often approach the creation of a new home too individualistically. This may solve one family’s personal needs, but may result in alienation from the local community. In the future, owner-builders need to consider the advantages of pooling their labor and time to construct communities of homes rather than isolated dwellings.

Beyond the neighborhood there exists the challenge of the larger environmental context—a world of finite resources dangerously overburdened by pollution. Our suggestions will always favor solutions that conserve energy in the home to minimize the necessity for burning fossil fuels. We also prefer renewable materials and products that don't pollute the indoor environment and that don’t require massive amounts of energy to manufacture.

We recognize that your priorities may be different from ours, and we invite you to use the information we’ve provided in any way that proves useful to you. One of the inspirational things about working with owner-builders is the fresh perspective they bring to their house-building projects, so that often we, as teachers and consultants, become the students. In this section, we offer you the knowledge we have gained by working with owner-builders, and we encourage you to pass on what you learn in realizing your new home to the others who are sure to follow.

FIVE OWNER-BUILT HOMES

Kendall Home: ill. 7-0: Susan and Rob Kendall wanted a home that would last, so they built theirs with concrete block walls insulated on the outside with expanded polystyrene finished with stucco. From the front, the 4,600-square- foot home looks conventional, but its passive solar features are evident from the rear.

Price-Tang Home: ill. 8-0: Doug Price, an attorney, took a year and a half off from his job to build this passive solar home for himself and his partner. He spent several years designing the house, which incorporates a two-story sunspace. The house—located in the mountains west of Denver—was being finished when these photos were shot.

ill. 9-0: Valdez Home: Renoldo and Maria Valdez designed and built their adobe home in the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado. Containing 3,000 square feet of living space, it cost about $10 per square foot build, and —thanks largely to passive solar design—it uses just one cord of firewood for heat and cooking each winter.

ill. 10-0: Young Home: Jan Young spent two years researching before she began construction of her timber frame home. Then, during construction, she took a year off from her career as a ballet instructor to act as her own general contractor. To keep costs under control, she used 12” x 12’ recycled timbers from the tipple house of an old mine. For energy efficiency, she made the walls with foam-core panels.

ill. 11-0: Strickland Home: Dave and Patty Strickland hired architect Dennis Halloway to assist them in designing their three-story owner-built home. They worked on the house for three years. The strongest exterior features of the home — suggested by Holloway — are a solar tower and two flanking Thombe walls.

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