A Blueprint for Better Building

Follow these simple steps to create a strong, beautiful, energy-efficient and better building.

| August/September 2005

  • 211-081-01i2.jpg
    The greatest value of a scale model is the peace of mind it offers you.
    STEVE MAXWELL
  • 211-081-01i1.jpg
    The author's model shows the workshop as it will look after completion.
    LEN CHURCHILL
  • Concrete Piers
    Concrete piers are a good, inexpensive choice for foundations in some situations.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL
  • Compactor
    A walk-behind earth compactor ensures that poured concrete floors won't crack due to settling of the underlying fill.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL
  • Floor Heating System
    Orange PEX-AL-PEX pipes will be covered in concrete to form the radiant floor heating system.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL
  • Insulated Concrete Forms
    The author chose insulated concrete forms (ICFs) for his foundation because they are easy to work with and offer good energy performance.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL
  • 211-081-01i11.jpg
    Steve Maxwell.
    ROGER YIP
  • SIPs
    Looking sort of like an ice cream sandwich, these structural insulated panels (SIPs) are made of foam and oriented strand board. Highly energy efficient, they also are easy to use; just cut them to your desired shape and hoist them into place.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL
  • Strucutural Insulated Panels
    The edges of structural insulated panels (SIPs) are recessed to accept wood.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL
  • Framing
    Cut in basic shapes, SIPs serve triple duty as the framing, insulation and sheeting for the walls and roof of the author's workshop. Notice how the roof sections have been numbered for easy placement.
    Photo courtesy STEVE MAXWELL

  • 211-081-01i2.jpg
  • 211-081-01i1.jpg
  • Concrete Piers
  • Compactor
  • Floor Heating System
  • Insulated Concrete Forms
  • 211-081-01i11.jpg
  • SIPs
  • Strucutural Insulated Panels
  • Framing

Sooner or later, most of us will need one or more buildings to serve our homestead — there are tools to store, animals to house and workshop tasks to complete in all seasons. Whether you’re talking about upgrading your house, building an addition or creating a work space for a home business, it’s never been easier to create your own durable, attractive and energy-efficient structures thanks to advances in tools and building materials. I know about these things because I’ve been building on my own land for almost 20 years. (Read about Maxwell’s The Self-sufficient Homestead, June/July 2005. — Mother)

During that time, I’ve occasionally made some mistakes in planning and building, but I’ve also honed my skills and discovered a process for design and construction that makes sense for homesteaders working alone or in small groups. My current project is a two-story woodworking shop with an office loft. What follows are practical guidelines to help you build or renovate a long-lasting workshop (or other structure) of your own.

Start With Design

When it comes to creating terrific buildings, the most important thing to keep in mind is not the most obvious: Don’t let your enthusiasm get the better of you. As strange as this sounds, it’s good advice because excess enthusiasm can short-circuit proper planning and diligent workmanship. When you make a mistake in these areas, you’ll pay for a long time indeed. Relax, slow down and get it right the first time.

If a high level of workmanship is your goal (and I’m convinced it always should be), then you’ve got to start with careful planning based on a scale model. Why take chances gambling on a dream worth thousands of dollars and buckets of your own sweat, guided by nothing more than a few scribbled notes to yourself and an imaginary design? Those scribbles can be the motivating factor in your decision to start the project, but you’ll need more than that for success.



Three things are necessary for every new or renovated structure to succeed. First, it must be designed to endure the forces of time and nature — and designed to use energy frugally. Our society can’t afford to create wasteful environmental liabilities like it has done in the past, and all effective solutions begin with good design.one correctly, you can enjoy terrific comfort in your new building using minimal amounts of energy.

The second important design feature is aesthetics. Beautiful land deserves structures that look attractive to family, friends and passersby. Will your property look better with the building you’ve envisioned? If not, go back to the drawing board. And while you do, understand that great aesthetics aren’t achieved primarily with money. The most cash-strapped rural family I’ve met had a beautiful home that was always immaculately tidy and attractive. They built it themselves on the shore of a lake, following classical design ideas and working diligently to keep the house’s exterior painted in the most vivid colors imaginable. These folks didn’t have much money, but visiting their home was like stepping into a colorful fairy tale.






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