RD: In our last installment, we discussed the quantity reason for being an owner-builder: You can get more house building your own than buying ready-made, and that’s valid, as long as you listen to our warnings and be careful what you wish for.
DW: But if you can afford it, why not just hire the professional specialists? I’ve gained more and more respect for the professionals through the years…. and my wife has, too, particularly after I mess up something I thought I would be easy to do myself.
RD: Well, I know this is going to sound weird, but I’m going out on a limb here and make the claim that the careful amateur can sometimes achieve better quality control than the professional contractor. This is the quality reason – the owner-builder might spend more time and pay more attention to detail and end up with a higher quality product. The idea is “if you want it done right, do it yourself.”
David: Like the folks who built the beautiful house in the photo! I agree, but I think “sometimes” is the operable word here. You’re asking the owner-builder to accept responsibility for quality control. If you get too far out on a limb, it might break.
RD: True, but if you are responsible, you can spend more time doing a good job with details and finishes, and also be very selective with the selection of materials and sub-contractors. You can have a bit more relaxed schedule, and take the time necessary to achieve high quality.
DW: The quality oriented conscientious contractor will say “No way!” We wish they were all so righteous, but the professional general contractor has to deliver in a very imperfect world – time and money drive the job, and those two can prevail at the expense of quality.
RD: That is a reality. If the bid price is too low; the crew too slow; the weather too bad; the owner too unreasonable about extras, or the contractor too ethically impaired, corners can be cut, often unbeknownst to the owner until after move-in.
DW: More too-too’s.
RD: So be very careful about selecting anyone to help you with your project. Owner-builders who achieve high quality check the reputation and experience of any contractor, sub-contractor or helpers they hire.
DW: It’s important to recognize when that quality factor requires a professional, so I prescribe one healthy dose of modesty, and another of respect for the skilled professional, to stay in the mix.
RD: Recognize where high quality is a matter of carefulness and time and integrity – which hopefully you do have, and where high quality is a matter of skill that you may or may not have. The “healthy dose of modesty” is to know if you do or don’t. If the latter is the case, then it is prudent to hire the professional.
DW: And we’re not talking about only hands-on skills. It’s not just about the tools. Or, rather, it’s not just about the hands-on tools. Understand the contracting “tools” – planning, organization, codes, timing, interpersonal skills.
RD: We’ll being offering this advice often: Understand what each professional contributes to the design and building process, and only then decide if you feel confident that you can displace that professional with your own efforts.
DW: There’s one more tool to discuss before we leave the subject. How often have we heard versions of this optimism: ”I could design and draw the house and save the cost of an architect or draftsman.” As an architect I’m particularly cautious about encouraging folks to save costs by doing their own design.
RD: I think every professional feels that way about his/her craft. The owner-builder can’t expect to duplicate the experience or skill level of the expert, but if you hire the expert at every turn, there go your cost savings.
DW: Design has a special place in the overall picture, though, because shortcomings in design can follow your project all the way through to an unhappy result.
RD: I wouldn’t discourage someone from trying his/her hand at design, but at the very least, get someone experienced to look over the plans – you’ll have plans that are buildable and you’re likely to get some creative ideas that will make your new house much more special.
DW: Even if you hire a design professional, you should still have a large role. Careful advance work on your part about the very specific aspects of your budget, values, lifestyle, and tastes are what the design pro needs – the “lumber”, if you will – to construct for you the optimum design.
RD: Never underestimate the value of professional input. Especially for the “one man band” owner-builder, I advocate having a professional “guru” to turn to for advice – before you proceed. Surely for design input. But also all the way through your project.
DW: You needn’t spend a lot of money for some hours of consultation. Here’s my guarantee: This will be some of highest return on investment of your entire project.
RD: Between us, we have a good (well, most of it good) 70 years of experience. We’ve seen many projects go very well and a few go poorly.
DW: And we have learned what the difference is between major satisfaction and major bummerhood.
RD: Yes, and like you said earlier, you really might get satisfaction.
DW: I think satisfaction is the best reason to build your own house – It just plain feels good.
RD: Absolutely, like how good it feels to eat veggies out of your own garden. Remember how good it felt when the bird moved into the birdhouse you built as a kid?
DW: Multiply that feeling a whole bunch to live in a house you’ve helped build yourself.
RD: And finally, my favorite reason: Lifestyle. When you build your own house, you choose how lightly you live on this planet. David, you and I came of age during the “Whole Earth Catalog” era – when many of us took a really close look at how our society was using and abusing this planet and how we could live differently.
DW: And that has led you to playing a major role in the owner-builder movement since the late seventies.
RD: And you’ve been a major pioneer in the development and advocacy of passive solar architecture since the mid-seventies.
DW: Our planet faces some of the same challenges as then, and some new and some much more urgent ones. Buildings – their materials, construction, use, and salvage – account for a large percentage of our total energy consumption. Start with your own house.
RD: Building your own means you get to make the genuinely “green” choices: From the really big ones like using solar design to the small ones like choosing low out-gassing subfloor adhesives.
DW: And all the other choices: you can buy local and regional materials; protect your site from erosion during construction; reduce waste and recycle almost everything. Your many design and construction choices reflect your values.
RD: Well, we have talked about many of the reasons to undertake building your own house.
DW: If you have the time, talent and treasure there is no reason not to undertake what can be a very rewarding experience in your life.
RD: So David, let’s assume one undertakes the journey to build his or her own house -- the next step is getting ready. When all is said and done the major difference between extreme satisfaction and major bummerhood is preparation. And that’s our next topic.
About the house in the photo built by Steve and Sherree Hill: “We built our home in 1983 after taking the Owner Builder Center course in 1982 and buying our 5 acres in 1981. We have added on twice in 1985 & 1988. The decks were built in 1988 and rebuilt in 2010. We have remodeled the interior over all those years and will be through with that this summer. Through? What’s that?”
We're looking for readers' stories about how they built their homes with little or no debt. Tell us your story by sending an email to Letters@MotherEarthNews.com. We're looking for reports with accompanying photos, so send along any images you have, too!
Here are some of the things we'd like to know.
1. What tactics did you use to avoid a big mortgage? For example, did you build it slowly over a long period of time while living somewhere else, or did you build it largely by hand out of free, reclaimed or natural materials?
2. What kind of home did you build?
3. Can you estimate about how much the materials you used cost?
4. How many square feet is your home?
5. How much of the labor did you do yourself?
6. Did you encounter any obstacles when working with building codes or inspectors?
7. Would you do it again?
8. Do you have any advice for others who want to do the same?
The Sky Ain't Cryin
Big news around here is no rain, and none in sight. Dry dry dry.
The ground is cryin.
Mushrooms are hidin.
Creeks are dribblin.
Hills, usually verdant this time of year, are brownish green, oh my.
People I pass on my walks say, beautiful day, I grit my teeth and agree.
A beautiful day right now would be torrents of rain.
I rented a log splitter and Marco I split enough wood for two years in about five hours. Usually I pick up oak from the side of the road, but this year there was a ton of cypress and eucalyptus lying around, cut to firewood-sized logs, needing only splitting. Very few people around here get their own firewood these days; probably half the houses in these two small seaside towns are second units for city people who come infrequently. The do-it-yourself era around here ended years ago.
The Hammer, made by P&H in the UK, is a new and uniquely designed ocean kayak. Check out a video of it in the surf.
Note: you've got to put in a fair amount of time in order to maneuver around like this. If you live in the San Francisco area, check out the California Canoe and Kayak Co. in Jack London Square in Oakland. They must have over 100 boats in stock. If you're serious about buying a kayak and put down a $300 deposit, they will let you try out any number of kayaks over a three month period, keeping them for several days until you find the one that suits your needs.
Clearing away snow has just gotten a charge from Snow Joe, the leading US supplier of over 140 products for snow removal and other seasonal needs. I got my hands on their latest innovation, a cordless snow blower powered by a 40-volt lithium ion battery, and compared it to their top-selling cord-based electric snow thrower. Snow Joe is the first company to come out with a cordless unit – and it handled our latest carpet of snow perfectly.
We’re always exploring ways to avoid fossil fuels, trips to the gas station and pollution. The Snow Joe made a great addition to our cordless lawn mowers we use to maintain the farm in the summer. While Snow Joe products tend to be marketed to urban and suburban dwellers, our test this past week suggests that they might consider reaching out to rural folks, too.
While not designed to clear an entire farmstead and around outbuildings (that’s for tractors or skid-steer loaders), either unit could be an easy-to-use option to clear paths to buildings or, if your farmstead is small enough like ours, a less cumbersome and eco-friendly way to dig out after a storm and clear a small driveway. Both Snow Joe units were easy to assemble out of the box and both come with a two-year warranty. Impressive are their large metal rotors and thick rubber blades. While they work best on smooth cement or blacktop surfaces, we skimmed the surface of our gravel driveway and they did the job without spitting too many stones everywhere.
Finally, we can leave behind the temperamental and finicky starts resulting from gas-oil fuel mixture-based snow blowers and what to do with disposing of, responsibly, the leftover fuel at the end of the season. I have too many blisters after trying, unsuccessfully, to get our noisy, smoky and gas-powered units going – even when neighbors helped out one year by rebuilding the carburetors. There’s something about the combo of minus five degrees and gas-oil mixtures that seem to guarantee frustration.
No gas. No cord. The first cordless single stage snow blower available in the US, the Snow Joe iON18SB with its Ecosharp 40-volt lithium-ion battery, served us well on our small homestead in southwestern Wisconsin. The unit is appropriately sized for our locale and needs, since we rarely get more than ten inches of snow at one time.
The iON18SB snow blower, with an 18-inch clearing width, cut through most of our 150-foot-plus-long driveway covered by about five inches of powder before needing to be recharged after about forty minutes of use. This unit threw the snow about twenty feet. We finished off the job with the Snow Joe SJ623E electric unit we tested out as well (see below). Of course, we could have opted for a back-up battery (for around $150) and just kept going.
The lithium ion battery is simply inserted into a covered slot on the handle of the blower to power the unit. Weighing in at only 31.5 pounds, there’s no straining to push it around (unlike the much heavier cordless lawn mowers on the market). There’s an LED light for illumination and a handy remote switch to pivot the snow chute without bending over.
The freedom that comes with the cordless feature does come at a price, starting at around $400. The EcoSharp charger recharged our battery in about three hours; it’s a “smart charger,” which means you can just leave it plugged in when not in use. However, all charging must take place inside your home or somewhere heated.
Plug in and Blow the Snow Away
The 15-Amp Snow Joe SJ623E Ultra Electric Snow Thrower, with a swept area of 18-inches, provided plug-and-go simplicity in tackling the piles of snow at the end of our driveway and out our back door. This unit threw our powder about twenty-five feet.
There’s no messing around this unit, capable of throwing about 720 pounds of snow per minute. Since the unit is so light – weighing only 34 pounds -- it’s a breeze to move around. A halogen light on this unit helps you find your way through the snow in the dark and, importantly, stay clear of the cord.
In our trials, the only hassles are being mindful of the cord and having somewhere convenient to plug in. We added an outlet receptacle near the driveway that allowed us to cover our entire snow removal area with a hundred foot, heavy duty, outdoor 12-guage extension cord. This unit runs about $250.
We’re actually looking forward to our next snowstorm, with these two units on stand-by to clear away the snow. And because our homestead is completely powered by the wind and sun, we’ll not be adding any carbon dioxide (or other emissions) to the atmosphere when we do so.
Photos Courtesy of Snow Joe
John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. Ivanko writes and contributes photography to Mother Earth News, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.
I've had this little hatchet for a few weeks now. Seldom have I had a tool give me so much pleasure. I love to look at it as it sits by the fireplace. It makes me happy. And using it is a whole other hatchet experience — it's razor sharp and cuts beautifully. It makes me want to split wood or sharpen stakes. Hey, I think I need to trim the branches on that dead oak I'm about to cut up for firewood.
Once in a while, a tool has just got it.
It's hand-forged, of Swedish steel (not made in China, by golly), by Husqvarna, the chainsaw guys. They also make a larger hatchet (this is definitely smaller than a normal hatchet). $39.95
Here is a link to some exquisite Austrian hatchets and axes (thanks, jhm!), but they are way more expensive.
Stopped by to see my long-time friend Jack Fulton last week. Jack is by profession a photographer, also a builder. In the '60s, Jack and I learned a lot about building from Jack's uncle, Alec Fulton. A jovial Scotsman, Alec took the time to teach us novices. Among other things, he taught me how to join cast-iron drainpipes with hot lead (and oakum) — in the days just before ABS and PVC drain pipe replaced cast iron.
Anyway, Jack had just finished rebuilding the entire front wall of his house (termite damage, new continuous foundation), and these well-used hammers were lying around. The smaller has been my go-to tool belt hammer for many years. A Plumb 16" with fiberglass handle. I like the straight, rather than a curved claw: better for de-nailing as well as digging in the dirt. Aesthetically, I like wooden handles, but the fiberglass has a bit of spring in it, which is comfortable.
Rick has been working over a month now on the 1,000 images in the book, using Photoshop to enhance (and sometimes rescue) the photos. He's just about finished. As of a few days ago, we finished layout of the last pages. Next we've got a round of corrections, then proofreading, then printing out the entire book full size on Epson proofing paper.
For the last week I've been fooling around with a title page showing people in the book. Here's the latest version, just finished this morning. Scissors and removable scotch tape at this stage.
We're working on a bunch of ideas for the cover. Nothing solid yet. Subtitle: Wheels & Water.
Target date is books in stores by May.
We've had orders for 2100 copies of Tiny Homes this month, and the month isn't even over. Saving our bacon.