“There is some of the same fitness in a man building his own home that there is in a bird’s building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their own dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and their families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But Alas! we do like cow birds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveller with their chattering and unmusical notes.”
Walden by Henry David Thoreau
I. The Fantasy
Designing and building your own home can be a vital step in taking control over your life, in taking responsibility for your own actions, in becoming free. It can do this on different levels, in different ways.
On the most obvious level it frees you financially. Owner-built homes cost much less. Labor is usually 50 percent of the cost of a house, so by doing your own labor you cut your costs in half. Spending your own money you are less likely to be wasteful in purchasing material, construction or design. This can save you another 10-20 percent. Therefore, you’re not tied to a 30-year mortgage that demands you earn at least so much money each month or your home will be taken away. How secure is your home in this circumstance?
Building your own home gives you direct control over a major process of your life, providing for your shelter. Someone else grows our food, builds and services our transportation, provides our heat, teaches our children, cuts our hair and on and on. We are becoming so far removed from the actual processes of our lives, from reality, that we are fearful of our ability to provide for ourselves. Providing our own shelter, doing the actual construction with a working understanding of all the different systems — heating, cooling, plumbing, framing, electricity — can give us a feeling of control and familiarity with our homes, our environment, and our lives, and in doing so grant a little more peace of mind.
More importantly it gives us the opportunity to create our own environment. Think for a moment of the effect different spaces or environments have on your spirit and frame of mind. Place yourself in a cement, glass and steel institutional building. Then imagine a warm intimate living room of a home you like. See the difference? In building your own home you can decide for yourself what space, what environment makes you and your family feel at home. Your home will be the environment you spend more time in than any other and because of this will have a tremendous effect on your outlook and your life. You can create a space that is truly yours that reflects you and the way you feel about life. By building it yourself, you develop such an intimate relationship with each room, and each wall or floor that the house becomes part of you. You watched it form each step of the way from your mind to its physical reality. It feels like your home.
Most important of all is the subtle, indirect effect building your own home will have on your life. It will teach the determination and persistence to continue when you think you are too tired, or too frustrated, or too incompetent to go on — for you must. It can become a reality for you; the knowledge and skills needed are not hard to obtain nor beyond the reach of any of us. And when it is finally done, it will give you the confidence and realization that, with determination, hard work, and patience, you can bring into reality your fantasies.
II. The Reality
The reality of building your own home, as opposed to the fantasy, can come as a starling awakening to many owner-builders. In hopes of lessening this impact I will discuss some situations you might confront and some ways to deal with these situations and still keep your sanity.
Many builders I know say they would never do it again but when asked if they are glad they did the answer is inevitably and emphatically “Yes.” Realize that from the moment you begin to dig your foundation, there is no stopping until it is finished, or at minimum closed in. You’re taking this one to the finish, no matter what. You can’t get half way done and find that it’s taking too much energy, or too much time, or too much money and you want out. There is no way out, for people seldom want to buy a half-finished house.
In building a home there are — seriously — ten thousand obstacles. Try not to become frustrated because you ran out of nails or are two studs short, or it rains for three weeks, or it costs $1,000 more than you thought, or your $15 carbine-tip-guaranteed-for-one-year-saw blade went dull in two days cutting soft pine. When all this happens, and sometimes it will all be on the same day, don’t feel that the house is not flowing smoothly. It is. Incorporated in the process of building a house are these thousands of hassles. One of life’s little kicks in the ass is that the value of any achievement is directly proportionate to the effort required to produce it. It’s called getting what you paid for. The finer the product the harder the effort. So when these obstacles arise each day just step back and go, “Aha, there’s number 2,156. What’s the easiest way to handle this one?”
It is essential that you learn to relax, go slow, and flow with the house. Be careful and realistic with your timetables. Owner-built homes usually take much longer than expected. The reasons are many. It is often your first time with this type of work. Your lack of experience makes you go slow and your mistakes more numerous. Your time and manpower are often limited. You might have to depend on locating salvageable materials or bargains. You are more likely to use custom-built cabinets and doors and use non-fabricated materials that have more feel but go up slower than pre-fabricated components.
You figure you’ll frame in at least two entire walls one day. First you cut through your extension cord and have to travel 10 miles to town for a new end. But by the time you get an ice cream cone (to ease the pain of having to go to town on such a pretty day), talk to a few friends, run an errand and buy gas, it’s noon before you start work. Then you find that your saw blade isn’t as sharp as it could be, nor the studs as straight, you forgot to frame in a window, smashed your thumb with a 22 oz. framing hammer, and got a letter from your girl saying she’s met a man whose already finished his own home and is awakening her spiritual nature, and she knows all the plans you made together but living in a tent till the house is done is just not in her flow anymore — so good bye Jack! It’s getting dark now and you’ve only got half a wall up and that’s crooked, you’re too crushed to even continue, you’re months behind schedule, and if you don’t get in that house before you have to start work you’re totally screwed. Can you handle all that — and still sit back and laugh at what a ridiculously comic creature a man is to go through all these changes just to provide his shelter? But you know you’re going to go on and finish because there is no choice. You’re into your ears now. And though you can’t figure out why, the universe dealt you this hand for a reason and you’ll play it out.
There are some things you can do to make this whole adventure go as smoothly as possible. The main thing is think. In house building and life in general, consider well the reality and ramifications of your actions. This is no ordinary project. Each mistake, either in construction or design, will become part of your everyday life. You’ll look at it and live with it each day and wonder why you didn’t take the time to do it right or think about it more. In my first house my bathroom was so small I either had to sit sideways or put my feet in the bathtub to use the toilet. I had plenty of opportunities to sit and consider that mistake. Your house will never be free from mistakes — no house ever is. But many can be eliminated if you will stop and consider the effect of each one of your decisions. Will summer sun come through that window and heat up the house? Will that material need a lot of maintenance? Is it too small? Too large? Kids’ room too close to parents? Too hard to heat? Consider each detail and don’t base your decisions on looks or concepts but on function; what do you want it to do for you?
Nowhere is this more important than in design. Your design is your home, made real by your thoughts, waiting to be manifested into the physical by your labor and determination. The design is the house. No amount of time, labor, or money, no proficiency of craftsmanship can make a good home from a poor design. Be sure your design is what you want before you start.
For many of us this is hard to do. The creative process is often slow, frustrating and painful. It should be, for we are stretching our limits and that always hurts some. Because of its difficulty we often arrive at our first design, kick back with a tremendous sigh of relief and say, “There, it’s done. Let’s start to build.” But if you want, go on further — always further; the initial design is at the beginning of your thought processes. Use it as an outline. Refine it, add to it, subtract from it, change it, throw it out, come back in a circle to it again, whatever. But as you get deeper into the thought processes of the house, deeper into the design, more of what you want — more of you — will go into the house. It will become more your space, your home.
But don’t let this design be a static one, it should be dynamic, ever open to change as the actual construction begins. No matter how much pre-thought is given to the house, when you start working on it for many hours a week, you will see things you could not have seen before — if you are open to it and not religiously following a blueprint. Moving the window 2 feet over to the left you view a rock formation you had not noticed before, changing a staircase you open up more space, extending a wall or floor you simplify your framing. Look for things like this as you build, always be open to change, and always be willing to expand and improve on anything you are doing. It allows you to play the game to your fullest.
Design from the inside, not from the outside. You spend perhaps 5 percent of your time looking at the exterior and 95 percent living in the interior. Don’t totally disregard the aesthetic value of the exterior; it is of importance for sure, but not primary. You are building a shelter to live inside of, not a large sculpture to look at.
Imagine each room and see how you want it to feel. How large or small, how much light, adjacent or far away from what other rooms. But mostly, what feeling do you want in the room? Coolly light and intimate, bright and active, private and removed from the other activities of your house? When you have decided, picture it in your head. Notice size and location of windows, and floor and wall finishes, colors, furnishings, then tie all the rooms together in an integral whole. In your mind live in this house for a week or so. Eat, cook, play, work, entertain, raise children and if it all feels good to you, you have a good basic design.
Always relate the design to the function. What is the function of the room? Of the home? A family house designed to keep the family together? For a couple, allowing lots of space and privacy? Will it have to be expanded? Contracted? Realize that the simpler the design the easier the construction. That’s why most houses are a series of boxes. But a house can be simple and straightforward and still have character. Feel free to use your imagination and let your spirit go into the house, and at the same time realistically recognize more complex designs take more time, thought, and effort but are often worth it. Be careful not to get lost in total practicality, for the ultimate function of the house is to create an environment that makes you high. If for you that means a house built in the design of a giraffe driving a ’56 Ford convertible wearing a top hat, and a scarf — build it! It’s practical if it makes you feel good — only realize it could take a lifetime to do it.
Be aware that the environment you are creating and living in is not only the house but the land and grounds outside the house. Ultimately the environment we are creating expands to include our whole world and universe. The more we become aware of this the more peacefully and respectfully we can live in this environment. Create the indoor and outdoor environment and establish an organic, flowing relationship between the two. The use and location of doors, windows, porches, gardens, entrance halls, and skylights will facilitate this.
The idea of the owner-built home is quickly being replaced with the concept of the owner-built homestead. View your home as integral systems of food raising and decomposition, of returning waste to the earth to produce again, as blending with the natural cycles that already exist on the land. I have been directing most of my attention here to the house itself but remember the concept of a self-sustaining homestead should be the ultimate goal of all of us wishing to reaffirm control over our lives and live in harmony with ourselves and our world.
That’s something of what I’ve learned in nine years of building hand-made houses. There are two other things I’ve discovered concerning the illusions of building my own home. There was a time when I hoped to find a fine piece of land out in the country, build my house, grow my food, raise animals, and live in peace and happiness with my family and friends. I thought to isolate myself from a world I viewed as insane and seek my happiness removed from it. That time has passed, for we are all linked together. What affects one affects all. I now see that the responsibility for improving the conditions of the world begins with me personally and that by turning my back on the world in scorn and contempt I only make those conditions worse. If I want to create an environment that I can feel at peace in, it means helping to improve everything inside my house and everything I can outside of it, for it is all ultimately my environment.
One final illusion concerning homebuilding that I watched crumble was my idea that I would find my ultimate happiness and peace when I had finally set up this perfect life for myself. I realized later that I was looking in the wrong direction, instead of outside myself I should have been looking inside for what I sought.
So build your own home, create your perfect environment, and have fun doing it, and living in it. And if after all that you find something still lacking, try sitting with yourself in your house or on your land and do yoga, or meditation, or prayer, or mantra or whatever technique feels best to you and perhaps you will find that the home you seek is in your heart.