How to Build Your Own Home

Building your own home is a challenge; take a few pointers to make the process easier.

| March/April 2004


If you’re inexperienced, cut your teeth by building a small, simple version of your house as a shed. You can always use the extra storage space, and it won’t be a disaster if the shed leaks or doesn’t last forever.

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.

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