Planning to Build Your Own House

Proper planning and budgeting are necessary steps to prevent pitfalls when building your own house.

Small house model

Beyond the functional value of owning a home, the experience you’ll receive by building it yourself can be immensely satisfying.

Photo by Fotolia/Romolo Tavani

Content Tools

Hut-Topia: How to Create Sustainable Small Homes and Homesteads by Christopher James Marshall, 2015, is a holistic DIY guide designed to help you along the path to creating a sustainable homestead and affordable dwelling. It provides perspectives on the history of small houses, building and zoning codes, as well as on being a landowner, how rural living is different than urban, examples of off-grid dwellings, and much more.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Hut-Topia: How to Create Sustainable Small Homes and Homesteads.

Building your home may take one or more years to complete. Considering the scope of an owner-built home project, it’s important to spend enough effort on the design phase in order for the building phase to go well.  Begin sketching a livable space, and then as you consider the choices in building architecture and on-site power, roll the energy plan and the house plan into one integrated plan.

Budget Is the Bottom Line

Budget is a one-word question for two things: how much time and money do you have?  You won’t know exactly how much time and money your home will require, but you can estimate based on quotes, or you can work the other way—fix the budget and then design a home that fits the budget.  Either way, it’s an educated guess.  The smartest guessers know how much they under or over estimate and compensate accordingly. 

Even though owner-built small homes are low cost, the nest egg you need will be one of the largest budgets in your lifetime.  Forget about a loan or mortgage, especially if your estimating skills are weak, because you could find yourself with an unfinished home and have to pay back the borrowed funds before you can live in it.  Another pitfall, when using only savings, and if your estimate is off, you could end up with an unfinished home and you’re broke.  Generally it would behoove you to add more time and money to the budget.  Even bank loans for new construction require you to budget at least 20% more for the unexpected.

One twist about budget, if you find yourself with time on your hands, then time is an asset you can leverage to build sooner provided you have the money to make the budget work.  On the other hand, if you suddenly come into money, but had no time, it might be worthwhile to take the time off of your other activities to build your home sooner.  One last option is to bring in income and build your home at the same time, which is extremely difficult and would require extending the completion date of your home.

What You Don’t Know You Can Learn

According to wise old Thomas Jefferson, “He who knows best knows how little he knows.”  Admit you don’t know what you’re doing if you’ve never done it before and have enough confidence to learn.  The advantage of a humble attitude will force you to stop and think it through and find out how to do it correctly.  Don’t be stuck in stereotypes, ‘only men use tools’, or that ‘you are too old’ or that it’s ‘too hard’.

Build what the neighbors have built if you don’t know where to start.  The neighbors have already worked through many building issues and the answers are built into their homes.  Your home could be at least as workable as theirs and you have half the thinking already done for you.

Your skills will improve as the home progresses and you may find it turns out better than you imagined.  The notches on my home’s log foundation are embarrassingly crude on the lower course compared to the notches farther up—lesson learned that it may be wise to practice how to do it on a piece of scrap material.

Don’t fear creating and operating a sustainable homestead—you can start, one step at a time, and that’s the best way to tackle an adventure!

How to Sketch the Details

Your design will progress from bubble diagrams to sketches on graph paper to drafted scale drawings.  Floor plans, elevations and renderings can be drafted by hand with T-squares, triangles, and scales on velum or drafted with 2D and 3D computer software like Home Designer, SketchUp, AutoCAD, etc.  Scale models can be made with cardboard from an architectural art supply store or created using 3D printers from a 3D CAD model. 

To start, create bubble diagrams to help you site your house and to determine what rooms you want and how they can be spatially integrated under one roof.  Door and window view directions are overlaid onto the bubble diagram to fix the orientation of the rooms.  Rearrange the rooms to minimize the pathways, hallways and stairs.

Next, make sketches with a pencil and an eraser.  Graph paper is your friend because on it you capture the dimensions, and that’s the only way to know if everything fits.  Graph paper is marked 4 or 5 squares per inch; on site plan sketches you’ll use a scale of 1 square = 2 feet; on construction detail sketches use 1 square = 6 inches or even larger scales.  The scale is chosen to allow the sketch to fit on one sheet of graph paper.  If the sheet is 8-½” x 11” and the sketch is a 20’ x 20’ floor plan then the scale should be 1 square = 1 foot.  No matter what the scale, it is acceptable to sketch details to ½ squares, but ¼ or ⅓ square is not practical when sketching by hand.  Indicate the scale used on every sketch so you don’t forget it when working on the sketch in the future.

At times you’ll want to post up several sketches side-by-side on a poster board for study using a concept called ‘design for X’.  ‘X’ being affordable, livable, sustainable, functional, etc.  The design challenge is to integrate trade-offs among ‘X’ options into a final design.

When your design seems to be solid, then create accurate dimensioned drawings of the floor plan and elevations.  From the plan and elevation drawings, you’ll be able to generate accurate building material lists and these drawings can be submitted to the building supply for material quotes.

Use a binder to organize copies of your design sketches and the rest of the project documents.  Divide the binder into several sections:

• Plan drawings.  This includes the floor plan, elevations, and the site plot, all this creates an overall picture of what the house will look like and how the rooms are arranged.
• Construction drawings.  This includes details about walls, foundation, windows, doors, anything that is constructed with tools and materials.
• Energy and Utility drawings.  This includes the wiring and plumbing layouts, solar energy paths of your site, electrical requirements, system block diagrams for energy, water, ventilation, and heating.
• Schedule and Budget.  This includes spreadsheets, lists, quotes, receipts.  You’ll need to stay on track and to manage vendors and material costs.
• Pictures.  This is to show others your progress.  Take photos at each stage of building completion.  Put your best photos on the cover of the binder, or until you have photos of your home, use pictures from books or other sources on the cover for inspiration.

Read more:

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Harness Hydroelectric Power for Off-Grid Energy

Christopher James Marshall Blog

Reprinted with permission from Hut-Topia: How to Create Sustainable Small Homes and Homesteads by Christopher James Marshall, 2015. You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Hut-Topia: How to Create Sustainable Small Homes and Homesteads.