Tips for Building a New Home and Home Renovations

Building a home or renovating? Get all of the information before you begin your project.

| March/April 2004

  • A construction shot shows the straw bales before plastering; note the roof overhangs that offer weather protection.
    Photos By Bill McAllen
  • The finished Furbish-Bathon house, includes a “green” (vegetated) roof over the back porch.
    Photos By Bill McAllen
  • Blueprints are called “plans” because they’re the printed version of your thoughts, your intentions, your wishes—your planning. Printed plans communicate to everyone involved the numerous decisions you’ve made about your house. The more people working on the construction of your building, the more important it is to materialize your dreams in tangible, printed-on-paper plans.
    Photo Courtesy The Good House by Clarke Snell

  • Photo By Laurie E. Dickson

  • Photo By Carol Venolia
  • Dan Chiras got a permit for his Colorado rammed-earth-tire and straw-bale house easily, even though it was the first of its kind in his area. He attributes his success to having professional stamps on his construction documents and to providing permit officials with lots of documentation, especially on fire safety and compression strength.
    Photo By Dan Chiras

  • One worthwhile benefit of straw-bale walls is the ease of creating such feel-good details as window seats.
    Photos By Bob Theis
  • A rule of thumb states that, to be worth the additional work, unconventional practices must create a tenfold benefit.
    Photos By Bob Theis

Once upon a time, people made dwellings out of rocks, dirt, grass, ice, or trees—whatever they pleased. They learned what worked through instinct and error; sometimes buildings rotted away, burned down, or caved in; sometimes they killed or maimed their inhabitants. Thus were born building codes. In 1758 b.c., the Babylonian king Hammurabi enacted the first building code, which mandated death for any builder who constructed a dwelling that fell and killed its owner.

Despite what you may think, today’s building codes are somewhat more kindly—and they aim to protect inhabitants from harm before it’s too late. Yet if you want to build your home of rocks, dirt, straw, bamboo, or unmilled trees, you’ll probably face regulatory discouragement. Building practices and codes have favored industrial building materials—concrete, steel, and milled lumber—and public health crises have given rise to mandated central plumbing, flush toilets, and central sewage treatment.

Although building codes were created to protect our health and safety, in a larger sense they encourage practices that are detrimental to our collective well-being. If you want to build your walls of straw and earth, collect rainwater for drinking, or water your garden with graywater, you can’t assume that getting a building permit will be a slam-dunk. As an architect who frequently escorts designs for earth and straw homes through the permitting process, I’ve seen acceptance increase tremendously over the past few decades. However, if you want to use “nonstandard” approaches, expect to put in extra time and effort.

Because every building department is unique, each nonstandard approach may be viewed differently, and even timing can affect how your submittal will be received (the first person to propose something unfamiliar usually works harder for acceptance). The best strategy is to fortify yourself with knowledge about the alternatives you want to use, the building codes, and the process of obtaining a building permit.

Secrets of codes and permitting

To begin with, here are some facts not widely known outside the building professions:

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