This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.
Just let me vent for a minute. I’ve been having a little trouble with my brain, nothing serious or anything… just been forgetting things, blacking out, and feeling a strange compulsion to listen to ‘N Sync. Okay, so I don’t need to be a rocket scientist to know I need brain surgery, right? Anywho, I’m a handy guy, so I’m thinking I’ll do it myself. I figure I can do a better job for less money and get the personal satisfaction to boot. I’m a careful dude, though, and after reading the pamphlets I’m not sure if I want to do it all myself, just assist in the operation, or simply run the hospital during the procedure. I decide to call a neurosurgeon for some pointers, right? I left four messages with different “doctors” explaining my situation clearly: I don’t have much money, I want to do as much of the brain surgery as possible myself, and I need it done immediately. Would you believe it? Not ONE of them returned my calls. I guess they were too busy playing golf.
[Insert dream sequence music here.]
Insane, right? Out of touch with reality, eh? Interestingly, though, if we change the topic from brain surgery to house remodeling or other construction (and “playing golf” to “drinking beer at Hooters”), then this “rant” becomes a story I’ve heard repeated with a straight face by a number of people. But are the two really that different? How realistic is it for the average person to consider having a considerable role in the construction or remodeling of their own home? Where does this idea come from that we can do our own brain surgery…I mean house building?
The phenomenon is even more pronounced in my specific neck of the construction woods: “green” and “natural” building. I completely understand the impulse. In fact that’s how I first got involved in construction. I didn’t know a kerf from a smurf when I decided to build my own house. All I knew was that I wanted a house and I didn’t have to be a brain surgeon to see that modern houses were expensive energy hogs. They also often seemed like soulless, black-holes of emptiness…and then there was that bathroom wallpaper with seashells. It was all very confusing.
I set out to find a better way. I eventually built a house that is substantially heated by the sun for a fraction of the going square foot cost. Though my wife and I live and work there, our electric bill is usually less than $20 per month. We use less than 100 gallons of propane per year and have free water. By most standards, that’s very efficient. It’s also a beautiful place (though, like most owner-builts it’s not completely finished) and I have the personal satisfaction of having done it myself. This isn’t personal back scratching, just a testament to my credentials for making the following statement: Owner-builder beware. The road is potentially fraught with danger, stress, spousal unrest, and cramps in your check writing hand. I’m not saying you can’t do it, just be careful. The first step is to get real. Here’s a list of a few, from my point of view, popular myths that you should be aware of:
Myth #1: There are simple materials and techniques that can make house building accessible to everyone.
At some point in history regardless of your lineage, your ancestors built their own houses. People grew up involved in house building and repair and thus it wasn’t something to learn or study, it was a part of life. For most of us, those days are long gone. What’s more, a modern house is considerably more complicated than most of its forebears. I’m not talking fiber optics and heated towel racks here. Energy efficient construction, the hallmark of all environmentally conscious building, is a distinctly modern concept that requires careful design and attention to detail in construction. Even operable windows and doors are a complicated technology requiring a fair amount of skill to implement. The “simple” materials and techniques that people talk about (cob, cordwood, straw bale, etc.) are almost exclusively relegated to filling wall volume and as such just scratch the surface of the complex matrix that is a house.
Myth #2: “Natural” or “green” building is easier because it works with nature, using less complicated systems.
The evil genius of modern construction is the combination of mass-produced components with forced air HVAC (heating, ventilation, and air conditioning). This allows you to replicate a design anywhere using the exact same quality-controlled components. The floor plan can be of basically any shape and size and the building situated unconsciously because the indoor air is “conditioned” and moved around mechanically. This is the lazy way, and we pay for it collectively with the pollution and resource depletion caused by its resulting profligate energy consumption. The better approach is to create a building that works with natural forces on the site (sun, water, and wind) to create a comfortable base interior environment. This approach is more subtle, takes more thought, and is less forgiving of mistakes. For example, you can replace a too small boiler with a bigger one, but you can’t move your house to take proper advantage of winter solar heat gain.
Myth #3: If you do it yourself, you’ll save money and get a better product.
This statement is part of the great CON-tractor vs. c-LIE-nt culture wars. The owner-builder variation is to make cost comparisons between owner-built and contractor-built houses without factoring in the cost of the owner’s labor. That’s just bad math. Every hour you spend on your house is an hour that you aren’t spending at a job that you know how to do. Unfortunately, beginning construction workers with your skill level earn low wages, don’t get paid vacations or holidays, and often don’t even have insurance. Moving from spending time at your job to grunting and groaning at your construction site is most likely a financial loss. In other words, it would be cheaper to pay someone with more skills to do the work while you earn cash to pay them. As for the quality of the product, when did you ever do a good job on anything the first time you tried it? Fundamentally, you have to ask yourself this question: do you really want to trust some clueless novice, i.e. you, with something as precious and practically fundamental as your own house.
In the end, the real question is about your goals. If you are looking for a vision quest, building your own house is a great one. Just realize that you’ll spend so much time (measured in years, not months) amassing knowledge and practical experience that the most practical outcome is that you’ll find a profession in the process. On the other hand, if you’re looking for the most cost-effective way to build the most environmentally conscious house that fits your needs, I strongly suggest making yourself part of a design and construction team that is dominated by experienced professionals. We’re not all CON-tractors, just like you’re not all c-LIE-nts.