You Can Build a House

How to Build a House: A guide to options for owner-builders.
By Troy Griepentrog
Jan. 19, 2009
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This may look like a traditional home, but it's built of super energy-efficient Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs).
PORTER SIPS/GARY BURMEISTER


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Home. It’s more than just shelter — it’s a reflection of our values and our lifestyles. It’s our biggest dream and it holds our fondest memories. Often it’s the largest purchase we will ever make. And building a house will undoubtedly be the single biggest do-it-yourself project we ever tackle.

If you decide to build your own home, you can jump-start the building process by buying a kit house package of pre-cut building materials from the companies listed in the “Resources” section at the end of this article. But you have several choices beyond conventional 2-by-4 stick framing. Perhaps you long for the tradition and rustic comfort of a log home. On the other hand, age-old timber-frame construction offers a broad range of design options. If you’re looking for superior insulation and short building time, Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs) might be just what you need. A tipi may be perfect if you’re a free spirit; or perhaps a yurt, which can be a more semipermanent option.

In the not-too-distant past, each family built its own dwelling place, but recently we’ve set standards of quality and comfort that have outpaced our ability to develop the skills necessary for building a house. But there is still a broad spectrum of how involved you can be, based on the skills you currently have or are willing to acquire. Some people choose to be involved in every detail, from cutting the lumber and stone to throwing the welcome mat by the front door. Others would rather select a floor plan, hire a builder, sign the mortgage papers and move in.

When you participate in building a house for yourself, you’ll not only save money, you can take great satisfaction in the accomplishment. Regardless of the style of housing you choose, the more work you do during construction (including demolition, prep work and cleanup), the more you’ll save financially. It’s commonly called “sweat equity,” and it’s a great way to tap your skill set and keep your mortgage payments low.

Here’s a quick overview of six building styles. A listing of companies across the country that offer prepackaged materials is available in the “Resources” section at the end of this article.

Log Homes

For many, a rustic log cabin makes a perfect home. Logs are a renewable and sustainable building material, although considerable time is required for trees of suitable size to grow. Frequently, logs used to build cabins are locally grown and therefore require low energy inputs for transportation. If you’re building a cabin from scratch, you may even use horses or oxen to transport logs from forest to building site. The insulating value of log walls varies based on thickness of the logs, width of the space where the logs actually meet, insulation between the logs, and caulking.

Log homes run the spectrum of size and complexity, so the skill level required to build one varies. Building a one-room cabin of logs requires a fair amount of strength and stamina, particularly if you choose not to use power tools, but with a bit of preparation and minimal training, you can build a solid cabin yourself. If you’re considering a log home with several rooms or two levels, the required skill level increases. You can choose a pre-cut kit to build yourself or to have contractors complete for you. See “Resources,” at the end of this article.

Timber Frames

Timber framing is an age-old method of joining large timbers together to create a “skeleton” for a building. Traditionally, timber framers used precisely cut joints locked in place with wooden pegs. Today, timbers can be joined using metal plates and large bolts or lag screws (called post-and-beam construction), and this style of joinery is typically used by do-it-yourselfers.

The framework created provides the necessary structural support for outside walls and roof. The space between the timbers can be filled with a variety of materials (for example, straw bales, wattle and daub, SIPs or traditional stick-built walls).

Timber frame structures are sturdy and durable. Joints in typical stick-built structures (held in place by nails) are weak, causing walls to lean without proper cross-bracing or the use of plywood sheathing. But the joints and corner braces used in timber-framed structures are stronger.

The skeleton created by the large timbers allows for open design options because internal walls aren’t necessary to support upper levels or the roof. If you envision a “great room” filled with a large family or lots of friends, a timber-frame home is worth further investigation.

If you’re considering building a traditional mortise and tenon timber-frame structure, you should know that cutting the joints and fitting the pieces requires skill and patience, but when these initial steps are completed, erecting the building can be relatively quick. See “Resources,” at the end of this article.

Structural Insulated Panels

SIPs are basically thick slabs of foam insulation sandwiched between sheets of oriented strand board (OSB). These giant sandwiches are connected using splines to form walls; roofs and floors can also be built of SIPs. Because they allow little air to pass through, they’re extremely energy efficient. If these panels are pre-cut at the factory, there is little wasted material at the construction site, and waste at the factory is more likely to be recycled.

For those with little patience, SIPs are a great choice. The shell of a typical house can be put together in only a few days. Because of the solid insulation in the walls, SIP homes are quiet — they’re shielded from outside noise. See “Resources,” at the end of this article.

Tipis and Yurts

If building your own home offers a sense of satisfaction, being able to relocate your home with relative ease provides a sense of freedom. What tipis were to Native American tribes, yurts were (and are) to the nomadic herders of Mongolia. Yurts are more dome-shaped than conical and have a vertical wall (built in a circle) that serves as the base for the “dome.” Both tipis and yurts are portable and have been perfected over time (and harsh conditions) as shelters and homes for people in nomadic cultures.

If time and money are your main concerns, a tipi or yurt might be the right solution. Both can be set up quickly and are relatively inexpensive housing options. If you’re building a house that takes longer to construct, a tipi or yurt is an excellent choice for temporary housing. See “Resources,” at the end of this article.

And of course, from an environmental perspective, tipis and yurts are often constructed from sustainable materials (and very few materials, in general), so they’re a “green” choice. Modern tipis are generally made of cotton canvas stretched over wood poles. Yurts are traditionally made of felted wool over wooden lattice and roof poles, but modern manufacturers offer primarily canvas and wood models.

Stick-frame Kits

From the Sears Roebuck kit homes of the early 20th century to prepackaged stick-frame kits available at your local building center, there’s something appealing about having everything to build your home in one package, ready to simply put together and move in. Perhaps it’s the adventure; it may be a notion that all the parts will fit together neatly (without any extra pieces left over). Regardless of the reasons for the emotional appeal, there are kit homes available for almost all styles of homes. See “Resources,” at the end of this article.

Depending on your experience with various materials and processes, do your best to realistically assess your skill level and the time commitment necessary to build a home yourself. If you’re skilled in a particular area (such as framing, roofing, plumbing or electrical work), you might choose to handle that aspect of construction yourself while hiring someone to do the rest.

Almost anyone can save money by helping with construction site cleanup. You also can quickly learn the skills necessary to paint walls, stain cabinets and varnish trim. Or maybe you’re comfortable with all aspects of construction except one. In that case, you can farm out that part of the project.

The broadest range of styles is accessible to those with mid- to high-level building skills and some construction experience. Especially if you’ve hired help or found a crew of skilled volunteers, constructing a kit home has the potential to go more quickly than building your own house from scratch. Kits are also available for log homes, timber-framed homes, SIP-built homes and yurts.

Businesses that offer package kits and provide instructions for assembly (so you can build a home yourself) are listed in the "Resources" at the end of this article. For a more extensive listing, visit our Directory of Home Building Materials and Green/Natural Builders.

It’s not impossible! You can build your own home. But if you’re still not convinced, these other Mother Earth News articles will inspire you.

Essential Advice for Owner-Builders
Build this Cozy Cabin
Grandpa’s Hobbit House
Life in an Earthship 
Our Green Dream Home 
Wild about Alaska
Our Handmade Home 
Waitress Builds Fortress 
A House of Straw
Our Little Blue Home
Debt-Free Home Building
Retiring Pioneers
Living Free 
Water in the Desert
A Handmade Dream Homestead

Resources

 These businesses offer package kits and provide instructions for assembly so you can build a home yourself. For a more extensive listing, visit our green building directory.

Log Homes

1867 Confederation Log Homes 
Bromley Construction and Log Homes, LLC 
Estemerwalt Log Homes 
Hilltop Log & Timber Homes
Log Homes by Meeker 
Satterwhite Log Homes
True Log Homes, Inc. 

Timber Frames

Goshen Timber Frames
Legacy Timber Frames, Inc. 
Sun Styles Timber Framing
Reliance Specialty Building Products
Riverbend Timber Framing
TF Sawmill, Inc.

SIPs

Bornhoft Construction Services, LLC
Building Alternatives, Inc. 
Controlled Environment Structures, Inc. 
FischerSIPS, LLC
IB Panels, LLC
Little Green Buildings
Norm’s Dream Builders, Inc. 
PanelStar Custom Homes 
SIP Home Systems
SIPsmart Building Systems
Structures NW, LLC
Sunlight Homes
Thermocore Structural Insulated Panels 
Vesta Building Industries
Winter Panel

Tipis and Yurts

Colorado Yurt Company
Don Strinz Tipi
Oregon Yurtworks, LLC
Pacific Yurts, Inc. 

Stick-frame Construction

Redstone Engineered Home Systems, Inc. 
Shelter-Kit, Inc. 


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Post a comment below.

 

MC_2
1/26/2009 10:31:24 AM
Oh, yeah-- You know that hallway you're building to accomodate your addition?? Remember that you're eliminating a major egress-- the back door-- by doing so. Plan an exterior door into your addition-- end of the hall is convenient-- and install it in the FIRST round of construction. That hallway is also a great place for planned storage space-- closets are nice, but even open shelves facilitate lots of space for tools, outdoor clothing, canned goods, et cetera. You can always hang up a curtain, add doors later, or just keep your shelves neat enough to be presentable (hey, as long as its safe, nobody you want to impress on an aesthetic level is going to get that deep into your house anyway--on this subject anyway, if it's legal and you can live with it, it's good to go).

MC_2
1/26/2009 10:25:21 AM
I'm not so sure about nationalism. I see its benefits, but also acknowledge that its success relies on no stronger nation coming along to exploit your butt for the sake of whatever advances their people. As far as White Nationalism goes-- ain't going to waste my time on that. Those who want to look out for themselves not at the expense of others or search for ways to bring a better, more sustainable standard of living to all people are welcome in MC's world. These guys can have a single-finger salute from the Scots-Irish-Italian bottom of the AngloEuropean barrel. Back to things that matter. Trailers. Two caveats: 1) You will not be able to service your addition from the existing breaker or fuse box. It was not designed for any after-market load. You will need a second box to service your addition. Plan it in advance-- and unless you are an expert (as opposed to an enthusiastic layperson), have an expert do it. The money spent is well worth the trouble saved. 2) Find your land first, and check codes, check codes, check codes. Lots of municipalities do not allow trailers. It's mostly a stereotype thing. The only vaguely valid reason is fire danger. TBOMK, they are no more likely to CATCH fire than any other structure, but they are far more likely to be totally destroyed and/or to result in fatalities in the event of fire. Put up smoke alarms everywhere, change the batteries with the seasons, have a functional route of egress (like a big window and a hammer) from every room but the loo, and DRILL BABY DRILL, especially if you've got kids. Enjoy your "trailer-trash" experience, and say a word of reverence to the soul of Old Blue.

MC_2
1/22/2009 3:08:13 PM
I have to second the caution about DIY with insufficient knowledge. I'm living in a badly-built DIY house. No insulation, shaky post-and-beam construction, illegal (and very touchy) plumbing, it would take a master electrician to figure out my breaker box. The SOB was good enough to hide all the things he did wrong from me, the realtor, and the building inspector; I can only assume he did what he did not out of incompetence but out of being lazy, cheap (not frugal-- CHEAP), and bloody dishonest. This house makes me really, really sorely miss the 30+ year old trailer we lived in thru college. It was in about the same condition, but it cost exactly $4000. If you don't already possess the time and the skill to do it yourself pretty much exactly right, or the money to hire it out, I can't sing the praises of a trailer enough. Because they tend to depreciate like cars, a used mobile home is cheap. Easy to find, easy to set up. Standard, therefore you (or whoever you pay to inspect it, if you're paying enough to make an inspection worthwhile) know exactly what you are looking at and there is very little room for concealed surprises. Don't know anything about DIY construction, but want to learn, starting now, and need to live on-site??? Get a trailer-- a two-bedroom unit is required by law to have a second door. Start by building a hall, long enough to accomodate what you want to add on, off that door, leaving the door attached (for reasons that should be obvious). Off that hall, add just one room, and live with it until you've had a chance to analyze your mistakes. Catastrophic??? Tear it down and start over-- you've lost one room, not your whole house. Moderate?? Correct them and assess what you've learned carefully before moving on. Minor?? Correct them, and move on. My dad and I did this one summer-- living in the trailer he'd bought for himself while we had an excessive addition built to basically mas

T. Petrie
1/22/2009 9:32:23 AM
Articles like this drive me crazy. I am a building inspector who has witnessed many, many self-contracted homes squeeze the credit, life-savings and and life-blood from well-meaning folks thinking they can save a few buck by general contracting their own home. For an inexperienced DIY'er - count on your initial budget ballooning by at least 25-50%. This is doesn't even take into account the do-overs a newbie will encounter, the missteps in scheduling. IMO, if you have the credit (welcome to 2009), look into prefab construction. It's energy efficient, it's way-more green and it doesn't have to look like a box (or, it can, if that's the look you're going for). Good luck!

mona_1
1/19/2009 10:21:56 AM
We completed the building of our home 8 years ago. Doing it on weekends and holidays it took 4 years to complete. But we were stopped on several occasions due to illness (a hip replacement) and other life events. Nothing feels as good as the sense of accomplishment of building your own home. We were able to incorporate all the ideas and materials that suited our needs not the "builders". But I would caution anyone considering this to be very honest with yourself about your level of commitment, especially if it is a couple or family. This is a huge commitment and it requires LOTS of tenacity to complete it. I wanted to quit on MANY a Sunday night. But by the next Saturday my husband's determination would push us on. Sometimes I wonder how our marriage survived, but it did. The result is a beautiful home that probably cost us half of what it would have cost if we had contracted with someone else to do it. And as we paid for materials as we went we were (and are) mortgage free. We did all the purchasing and almost all the work. We contracted with an architect to draw the plans, a mason for the brick work and an HVAC guy for heat/air. We did everything else. Yes we made mistakes along the way, but we learned how to fix our mistakes. And some we just learned to live with. Find out what building codes are in your area, read books, ask for help and advice and try to keep a sense of humor. You will need it.








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