In my last article on homebuilding tips, I wrote about things you need to know before you ever get started. Today, I’m sharing a few more tips for DIY homebuilders. Even if you've already begun the building process, you can benefit from these suggestions.
The author (above) and her husband hand built their home using a post-and-beam construction technique.
My mother gave me this advice when I was just a girl. She’d seen relatives move into unfinished houses, houses that were still unfinished when they moved out. But did I listen? No! Of course, there are all kinds of reasons to move in before you’ve finished the flooring or have indoor plumbing. In our case, we simply needed a roof over our heads.
Living in a space that's still under construction is a special challenge on a number of levels. (Note lumber stacked on the floor in future living room space.)
Still, once you’re living in a space, it’s really hard to work around people, furniture, and tasks of daily living. It’s also messy. You may even begin to stop noticing—until you don’t. By that time, you have so many more lists of important things to do that it hardly seems worth the bother, except that it has now become like an itch you can’t reach.
With no cabinets, nor even walls, horizontal girts became temporary shelves for kitchen storage in the author's under-construction home.
At some point in the future, you may decide to do some remodeling. You might even need to expand your home. You’ll be so much better off if you know exactly where your studs and other structural components are (wires, pipes, ducts). In the midst of building, it’s hard to imagine you could ever forget these things, but trust me, you can. Keep detailed plans and store them where you can lay your hands on them in twenty years. Better yet, take pictures before you cover your work. My friend whose house burned down when he drilled into wiring would have profited from that little trick.
I’m not talking about the human kind, though you should really think about that, too. In addition to knowing just where your wiring and plumbing are, think about placement. When repairs are needed or you’re upgrading, you’ll want to be able to get at them relatively easily. Being able to access them in a crawlspace or unfinished basement vastly simplifies the process. A crawlspace is better than a slab, and a roomy crawlspace is better than a cramped one.
Where possible, don’t place wires or pipes in places which will be awkward to access later, such as in a wall at the back of a tiny, unlighted closet. The same can be said for water heaters, furnaces, and other equipment. In other words, you want things where you can get at them.
It’s also smart to avoid installing plumbing pipes into exterior walls, especially if your winters are harsh; it helps protect against frozen pipes.
I wrote about this previously, but it bears repeating. Of course, you want to do it all yourself. It’s your dream, your baby. But sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. Some tasks may require more person power than you have. You may lack the equipment to do certain jobs safely, effectively, or according to your other needs. If so, it’s time to hire someone with proper tools and qualifications. It may even make your home more energy-efficient.
Because of how we designed our wall structure, we had five and a half inches of space for fiberglass insulation. We boosted our insulation value by adding a 3/4″ layer of foam. It was a lot for the times, but it wasn’t enough for a truly energy-efficient home, especially in our climate. We’ve done extensive rehab work since then, including the addition of foam insulation which resulted in nearly twelve-inch-thick exterior walls. On some sunny, but very cold, winter days, our heater never comes on. Our body heat and the heat from our appliances are often enough to get us through the day.
When you’re on a shoestring budget, as many modern homesteaders are, it’s hard to think beyond initial building costs. But it pays to look ahead. There are so many areas where you can save money—and time—over the long haul, even though it costs more in the beginning. Those savings can be substantial.
Chances are, you plan to stay in your DIY home for many years. So it’s worth thinking about long-term costs and benefits. Insulation is just one example. The kind of siding you choose is another. One that requires frequent maintenance not only costs more with every year, it also sucks up your time. Either that or with all the other chores staring you in the face, you let it slide. That makes it an even more costly project down the road.
Other areas where spending more now will result in lower long-term costs include roofing materials, windows and doors, and even paint quality.
Maybe you know before you start building that you’ll want to make some changes later. If you can’t afford energy-efficient windows, but hope to add them eventually, be sure the less expensive windows you start with are standard size. Perhaps you’d like to add in-floor radiant heat tubing in a few years. If so, build a floor structure that’s substantial enough to support it. Drooling over ceramic tile flooring but it’s too costly? Choose an easy-to-remove material for your starter floor. Glue-down flooring is not your friend at remodeling time. You get the picture.
Building your own home is one of the most rewarding experiences you can have. How satisfying it is to wake up each morning in a home you built yourself. It will be even better if you pay attention to little details today so you can avoid trouble in later years.
Carole Coates is a gardener and food preservationist, family archivist, essayist, poet, photographer, modern homesteader. You can follow her Mother Earth News blog posts by following this link. You can also find Carole at Living On the Diagonal where she shares her take on life, including modern homesteading, food preparation and preservation, and travel as well random thoughts and reflections, personal essays, poetry, and photography.
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