If you’re like me, you have trouble deciding what movie to watch, so making the really big decisions involved in house building sends you bowing at the shrines of experts. Once you start researching, however, the one thing you’ll find is that experts disagree. And in housing, experts don’t just disagree; they seem to live in alternate universes. Venting, vapor barriers, materials, insulation values, air exchange—all are debated hotly. So-called accepted practices are in a constant state of flux. Debate is one thing that the alternative and conventional building worlds have in common.
Experts are expected to have general knowledge applicable to a wide variety of situations. A housing expert should have access to generations of experience about a way of building in a specific location. How many experts out there have even a minimum—let’s say thirty years—of personal experience with a single building? In our society, people build, consult, or install—and then move on.
You’re the one best suited to decide how these experts’ knowledge should be applied to your situation. I prepared for years to build my own house. The worst mistakes I made came from following advice that went against my better judgment because it came from people who I assumed knew more than me. When I abdicated my role as decision maker, I paid a price.
The following advice may help as you take the reins of building your home.
Distrust numbers and statistics. Statistics are psychologically powerful. They often quantify abstractions, making them more real in our minds. But your house won’t be a statistic; it will be real, existing in a specific time and place. Don’t let a certain statistic or theoretical number get lodged in your head. What’s the R-value of a straw bale wall? The embodied energy of concrete? The cost comparison between thatch and metal roofs based on construction costs, maintenance, and longevity? The accepted answers to these questions change all the time, so don’t get too dependent on any of it.
If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. One Sunday morning I listened with amusement to a public radio show about straw bale building. The announcer explained how easy it is to build with straw. Beginners could do it; almost any shape could be made; and the whole thing would cost almost nothing.
Well, I’ve done some straw bale building, I’ve dabbled in cob, I’ve been around rammed earth, I’ve used concrete, I’ve laid a variety of masonry materials, and I’ve worked with wood. Never, while working with any of these materials, did the word “easy” come to mind. And if there’s a way to use them to build a house for next to nothing, it’s a closely guarded secret.
Many well-meaning people in the alternative building community see it as a crusade, a battle of good versus evil. In struggling to get people to listen, they paint too rosy a picture. The unfortunate result is that even in the ostensibly altruistic world of alternative building, you have to take everything with a big grain of salt.
Building something that will withstand nature’s onslaughts while welcoming it with open arms has never been and cannot be easy. It takes a lot of thought, hard physical labor, and careful attention to detail. It’s an art form of the highest sort. In the real world, almost every undertaking of any meaning is difficult, both physically and mentally—and there’s nothing wrong with that, as long as you’re prepared.
Trust practical experience and local knowledge. There is no substitute for practical local experience. Alternative building isn’t really about materials or making political statements; it’s the creation of a building that fits specific people in a specific environment. When looking for guidance, it’s much more important to find someone with solid, practical, locally based experience than a card-carrying alternative builder. Find out what the old-timers are doing. There are more similarities than differences between alternative and conventional building; local experience, even if it’s staunchly conventional, is often very valuable.
Can you build it yourself? There is a feel you get for building things, a general understanding of how to deal with materials, that can cross over between many different activities and approaches to building. Will the force exerted by this thing cause that thing to fall over? Does this stuff seem like a good consistency to set up the way I’m expecting? Do I need to step back and call someone who knows what she’s doing? Without this basic experience—this quasi-intuitive knowledge of tools, materials, and problem solving—I advise thinking long and hard before attempting to build your own house.
The success of your house will be measured in the details. Is the flashing correctly installed? How was the slab prepared before pouring? Was caulking used or abused? Is there a foundation drain? Has the site been graded to shed water? Have local insects been taken into account? The answers to these questions and many more can’t easily be determined after the fact. Planning and careful attention to detail are required.
This is boring stuff, seemingly far removed from the dream of a cozy, socially responsible house. But these details are really the core of your dream. Many crucial details aren’t conceptually difficult, but they need to be executed skillfully. Identifying and performing these tasks on your precious house for the first time ever, without guidance and supervision, would probably be a mistake.
Detailing is particularly important in alternative building techniques because these approaches haven’t yet become part of the construction vernacular. Who do you turn to when you have difficulty attaching wood roof framing to a monolithic cob wall or are confused about flashing details for a straw bale building? Books can give you only general information, and many situations aren’t covered in those simple diagrams. Text that seems clear while reading it on the couch can be frustratingly incomplete when you’re actually trying to carry out the operation described. Inexperience and trailblazing don’t go well together. If you don’t know what you’re doing, choose alternative building techniques that have a history in your area.
Having said all that, I think you probably can build or be deeply involved in building your own house. The only way to decide that is to soul search and be honest about your limits and your strengths. The key is to get experience before starting your own house.
The ideal approach is to get involved in a project similar to your own with an experienced person in your area. If that isn’t possible, spend some time working on any construction project. If you can’t make the time for that, find the most experienced contractor you can and ask if she’s willing to let you work with her while building your house. She might be very wary of this prospect; I’m reminded of a sign I once saw: “I charge $20 an hour to do the work, $25 an hour if you watch, and $30 an hour if you help.”
The good house book
Available in bookstores in April, The Good House Book: A Common-Sense Guide to Alternative Homebuilding by Clarke Snell is the first in a line of Natural Home books to be published by Lark Books.
This information- and image-packed book is a reader-friendly overview and analysis of the wide variety of approaches available for building an eco-friendly, energy-efficient, sustainable home. In 256 pages, with 400 color photos and illustrations, it covers a broad range of topics, from choosing a site to selecting appropriate materials; from building with straw bale, cob, adobe, or rammed earth to exploring the possibilities of plugging into solar, hydroelectric, or other forms of alternative home power systems. Readers will come away thinking in new ways about everything from insulation and water sources to air quality and alternative energy sources.
The Natural Home series—a collaboration between Natural Home and Lark Books—will include books on home building, decorating, and maintenance as well as a range of lifestyle topics.
Take a final reality check. For me, alternative building isn’t about right way versus wrong way, how things ought to be, or how you wish things were. It’s about how things are: how you are, how your land is, and how the two can come together. It doesn’t get more real than that.
Yet the true reason most people are drawn to thoughts of housing is to dream. In your “dream house,” all the pieces of your life will come together in a harmonious whole. The paradox of building a house is that you have to remain grounded in reality while dreaming. To do that you have to understand and deal honestly with the realities of your specific situation—your skills, your finances, your site conditions, your time constraints, your personal likes and dislikes, your social network, and so much more—while allowing yourself to push the envelope of your perceived limitations.
Adapted with permission from The Good House Book: A Common Sense Guide to Alternative Homebuilding, a Natural Home book due out this spring from Lark Books.