Giving up the security and promise of my career and taking complete charge of my life were the hardest things I've ever done. But Thoreau's claim that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" had struck home for me: I felt like one of those men.
PHOTO: MOTHER EARTH NEWS STAFF
This city-turned-country couple combined high hopes and hard work to create low-cost country home in the Ozarks. (See the Ozarks home photos and diagram in the image gallery.)
In 1982 I quit my job as a research engineer in Tacoma, Washington; my wife and I sold our home and many of our belongings, paid off our debts, packed everything into a 12-foot trailer, and with our two-year-old son—and only $10,000 in savings—moved to the Missouri Ozarks to build a new life in the country.
Giving up the security and promise of my career and taking complete charge of my life were the hardest things I've ever done. But Thoreau's claim that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation" had struck home for me: I felt like one of those men. I had all the trappings of success, but somehow happiness had passed me by. When Jacob, our first child, was born, I suddenly realized that I had forgotten how to laugh, and that I rarely could enjoy the moments that make life precious.
Thoreau's advice was to simplify the outward circumstances of life, reduce needs and ambitions, and learn to savor small pleasures. For us that meant making a complete break and beginning a new life—one that would be slower, more basic, and (we hoped) more fulfilling and enriching.
We were an urban family; we had no idea how things would turn out. But deep down, I knew we had to try. Like Thoreau," I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived."
Building a Low-Cost Country Home in the Ozarks
Advertisements for inexpensive land in the Ozarks first attracted us to the area,. and further research suggested that the Missouri Ozarks, in particular, were right for us. Property taxes in the region are low, and building code and home-schooling restrictions minimal. We also liked the four-season climate and the area's many rivers and lakes. Another plus was that many people who shared our goals were being attracted to the Ozark region.
Moving to the Ozarks: The Land
Our budget for land was $2,500—obviously, we weren't planning on big-time farming. Our goal was simply to become as self-sufficient as possible on our own property; any cash we needed would have to come from part-time work outside the home. Above all, we were determined not to go into debt. If we couldn't pay, we'd do without. So we figured five acres of forest would be sufficient for a house, shop, garden, pond, small orchard, and a few milk goats and honeybees, while still leaving enough land for a woodlot and a buffer zone.
Unfortunately, I soon found that property in the area is usually sold in larger parcels—20 acres and up. I wanted to buy direct from the owner to avoid a realtor's fee, but couldn't find anyone offering small acreage. And realtors showed little interest in a customer with only $2,500 to spend (the one who sold me my property made only $125). Moreover, when I did find small tracts for sale, the price per acre was often significantly higher than I'd hoped. Persistence paid off, though, and within eight weeks of our arrival we were the proud owners of five acres of oak-hickory forest on the southwest slope of a hill eight miles from town. The price: $2,500.
During January and February, working about 25 to 30 hours a week and using only hand tools (there was no power on the property), I tackled my first building project: a combination workshop and storage shed. Much of my time was spent cutting and nailing frozen, green wood—not a pleasant task, but well worth the effort. The shed provided us with a place in which to work, sleep, and store our belongings—and, perhaps more important, gave me the carpentry experience I needed to build our home. The outbuilding is a simple 12 foot by 20 foot pole barn, with a single-pitch metal roof—13 feet tall at the high end and 9 feet at the low—and a 100-square-foot storage loft. I nailed 1 X 8 siding horizontally for bracing and used pea gravel for the floor. Total cost: less than $700.
The Country House Design
I spent a good part of the winter reading every house-building book I could find. They all suggested spending a lot of time making detailed plans before beginning to build, so I read, drew up numerous designs, read more, changed designs, and so on until my head was spinning. The possibilities seemed limitless. Finally, I put all the books aside and let the house take shape in my imagination. Over a period of days (and wakeful nights) I built the entire house in my mind, piece by piece, from foundation to chimney. At last, I had a design—the hardest part was over. All that remained was to execute the plan and put the pieces together.
Country Home Foundation and Root Cellar
I decided to use post-and-beam construction for the house, just as I had for the shed, because of its simplicity, low cost, and resistance to tornadoes and earthquakes (both of which are known to frequent this area). A post-and-beam house is solidly tied together, from the bottom of its foundation poles 4 feet in the ground all the way up to its rafters.
Since the poles establish the position of the roof and all exterior walls, I put much time and care into setting them plumb and square. Once I had their positions laid out, I dug a 4 feet-deep, 18 inch-diameter hole for each post and poured a 6 inch concrete pad in each cavity. Then I trimmed the poles to length, notched their tops to accept the upstairs 4 by 10 floor girders and 4 by 8 floor beams (which rest upon the girders at 5 feet intervals), and set the uprights in place.
I intended to excavate the root cellar by hand-digging an 8 feet-deep, 12 feet-square hole beneath the kitchen and dining room area—but after 2-1/2 weeks of backbreaking work I finally surrendered and hired a man with a backhoe to finish the job. Then I shoveled in and leveled a foot of coarse gravel to create the cellar floor, and set a post at each corner. (The four root cellar posts had to be extra long, since they extended 8 feet below ground level.) I toenailed treated 2 by 6s horizontally (at 24 inch intervals) between the posts, applied a bead of caulk, and then nailed treated 1/2 inch plywood to the outside of the 2 by 6s. And last, I draped 6-mil polyethylene plastic around the cellar walls, lapped and caulked the joints, and backfilled the walls with coarse gravel. Our cellar stays dry even after a heavy rain.
Since our building site is sloped 1 foot in 10 foot, my next job was to provide a level surface on which to build the first floor. Rather than simply, cantilevering the floor out over the slope and leaving a crawl space beneath, I built an insulated retaining wall of treated wood around the lower outside perimeter of the poles, enclosing the sloped area beneath the house—the area that would otherwise have been crawl space. Then I filled the enclosure in with soil dug to make our root cellar, until the surface within the retaining wall was level to a height at least 6 inches above the outside ground level.
The Country Home Roof
After setting the posts and installing the upstairs floor beams, I notched the 2 by 12 rafters and bolted them to the top of the posts with 5/8 inch bolts. Then I nailed 2 by 4 purlin ties to the sides of the rafters (the ties were perpendicular to the rafters, extended 9 inches above them, and were spaced 24 inch apart) and nailed the 2 by 10 purlins to the ties, parallel to the length of the house (see photo 3 in the image gallery).
With that done, I nailed pre-painted metal roofing (twenty-two 36 inch-wide sheets 17 feet long) directly to the purlins. Sheathing isn't necessary with metal roofing, so the cost of the system (about $42 a square) is cheaper than that of conventional roofs, and requires much less labor to install—it took only about 20 hours to complete our roof. Moreover, because it has a baked-on epoxy finish, this roof is extremely weather-resistant and shouldn't need to be replaced in our lifetime.
Country Home Walls and Floors
Framing in the exterior walls was one of the most enjoyable parts of building our home. There are no load-bearing walls in a post-and-beam house, so no header beams are required over the doors or windows. I simply toenailed 2 by 6 framing horizontally (at 24 inch spacing) between the posts and framed up a door or window wherever I wanted one. Then I stapled tar paper to the outside of the framing and nailed pine siding over that.
For the first story, I nailed down vertical 3 inch-wide battens spaced about 6 inches apart from edge to edge; then I centered a vertical 8 inch board over each gap, so that it overlapped the batten on either side by an inch, and nailed it through to the framing. The result—reverse board-and-batten siding, with the boards spaced 1 inch apart—looks good and provides an extra inch of insulating dead air space in the wall. For the second-story siding (which involved the gable ends only), I shiplapped 1 by 8s horizontally and then applied sealer to the bottom drip edge of the siding and to the exposed ends of the rafters. No other finish was applied.
With the exterior completed, I filled the walls with fiberglass insulation and stapled a 4-mil polyethylene vapor barrier over it. Then I paneled the interior with 1 by 8 rough pine boards applied vertically edge to edge (except for the paneling on the northeast and southwest comers, where I applied the boards at a 45 degree angle to provide additional bracing).
To install the downstairs floor, I covered the ground with 6-mil polyethylene and then laid treated 2 by 4 sleepers flatwise on top (spaced 24 inches center to center) and toenailed them at the ends to the foundation wall. Next, I nailed pine 1 by 3s to the sleepers at 8 inch spacing and then nailed 1 by 8 boards edge to edge on top of the 1 by 3s through to the sleepers—thus, the 1 by 3s sealed the joints between the 1 by 8s. I laid a brick floor in the living room in front of the window opening to provide heat storage capability. For the upstairs flooring, I purchased planed 2 by 6 tongue-and-groove pine decking (at 35 cents per board foot) to span the floor beams.
Country Home Windows and Ventilation
In my opinion, windows are expected to do too many jobs at once: to provide light, solar heat, a view, and ventilation, all without becoming sources of excessive heat loss in winter. The result is the modem double-hung window—which I consider an unsatisfactory and expensive compromise. It's better, I think, to position fixed double-pane windows wherever you want light, heat, or a view, and to place vents where they feetll do the most good to provide ventilation in the house.
Accordingly, I installed vents low on the downstairs north and east walls, and in the second-story eaves. Natural convection causes the warm air escaping from the upstairs vents to draw in a steady flow of air from the cool sides of the house even when there is no wind.
I made the south-facing windows downstairs from 34 inch by 76 inch single-pane safety glass. Two such layers separated by a 1 inch by 1 inch board make an acceptable double-pane window for a cost of only about $18. To prevent excessive condensation between the panes, I carefully sealed the inside window with caulk while allowing the outside window to breathe by installing it over felt weather stripping. Also, I placed the windows at a slight slant (leaning outward at the top 1 inch in 20 inch) to reduce glare and improve interior acoustics. On sunny days after a heavy rain some condensation does appear between the panes, but it dissipates quickly, and we don't consider it objectionable. (We do plan to remove the outside glass once a year to clean between windows, though.)
Living on our Ozarks Land
I began digging the foundation for our house on May 1, we moved in on October 1, and I finished the interior that winter. Over the past year we feetve found the house to be open, well-lit, and easy to heat. During sunny winter weather we don't need to fire up the woodstove unless it's unusually cold outside. We burned less than 1-1/2 cords our first winter here (1983-84). At that rate, the wood on our five acres will last indefinitely.
We have no electricity; we use kerosene lamps, a gas range, and a gas refrigerator (a Servel we bought at auction for $35). Our water is collected from the house and shed roofs into open 55-gallon barrels; eventually we'll replace the containers with a large cistern tank. A 2 inch rain will provide us with more than 1,000 gallons from the house roof alone, and when you consider that the average annual rainfall in the Ozarks is over 40 inches, it's easy to see that we should be able to collect plenty of good water. (During severe droughts, water trucks will deliver 1,000 gallons for about $10.)
As far as our garden goes—well, as the folks around here say, "Nothing grows in this ground but rocks." The topsoil is thin, rocky, and acidic, and the subsoil is mostly clay. During the first spring I dug seven 4 feet by 35 feet raised beds. Each row took about six hours to dig to a depth of 1 foot and produced an average of seven large wheelbarrow loads of rocks and roots.
Although we fertilized, we didn't harvest much from the garden the first year because of severe heat and drought, and we expect it will take several years to make the ground really productive. Once the root cellar was dug, we had the backhoe man dig two dozen fruit tree holes in our rocky ground, and when we've accumulated enough topsoil and compost, we'll plant our orchard. Our two milk goats are fenced out of the garden and have the freedom to roam the woods.
Have we found the good life? Well, to be honest, we're still adjusting to our lower standard of living and the slower rural pace. But in spite of that, we're also beginning to love the freedom, the peace of mind, and the degree of self-reliance we've achieved here at our still-developing country home.
House Design Highlights
• Measures 20 feet wide (north-south), 30 feet long (east-west). Built on
twelve 6 inch by 6 inch treated posts spaced 10 feet apart. Steeply pitched roof
(12/12) with upstairs bedroom loft.
• All beams, framing lumber, siding, and paneling are
rough-sawn southern yellow pine purchased green from local sawmills (at
17 to 20 cents per board foot) and dried for one to three months before
• Passive solar heat. Large, south facing windows; brick floor
for heat storage laid directly on earth beneath house. Foundation
• 10 feet by 12 feet greenhouse attached to south side of house (access from both inside and outside).
• 10 feet by 10 feet root cellar built from treated wood; access through floor.
• 10 feet by 20 feet patio with deck above, access from loft.
• Epoxy painted metal roofing nailed directly to purlins running length of house 1-1/2 feet roof overhang for shading and protection of house.
• 6 inch fiberglass insulation in walls (R-19), 10 inch in roof (R-30). Small north and west windows; most windows fixed and doublepane;
centrally located woodstove for backup heating.
• Venting large opening to loft in first floor ceiling; inlet vents low on north and east walls; outlet vents high on south wall and upstairs at gable ends.