How to Build a House: A guide to options for owner-builders.
This may look like a traditional home, but it's built of super energy-efficient Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs).
PORTER SIPS/GARY BURMEISTER
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
Water in the Desert
A Handmade Dream Homestead
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.
Bornhoft Construction Services, LLC
Building Alternatives, Inc.
Controlled Environment Structures, Inc.
IB Panels, LLC
Little Green Buildings
Norm’s Dream Builders, Inc.
PanelStar Custom Homes
SIP Home Systems
SIPsmart Building Systems
Structures NW, LLC
Thermocore Structural Insulated Panels
Vesta Building Industries
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