MOTHER's Low-Cost Home-Building Contest: Winner III

Winner number three in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS Low-Cost Home-Building Contest are the Masons, who built a timber frame home for only $3.55 per square foot.

| September/October 1986

Low-Cost Home-Building winners Masons

It takes ingenuity and persistence for a young family with three small children to build their own home. One way that the Masons economized was by cutting most of their lumber with a portable saw mill.


Using local materials, the Low-Cost Home-Building winners were able to build their own timber frame home for only $3.55 per square foot.  

MOTHER's Low-Cost Home-Building Contest: Winner III

After taking a break for our special 100th issue, we're now ready to pick up again with reports on the five Low-Cost Home-Building Contest winners we announced in issue 98. Thus far, you've seen the Kennedys' ambitious, $11.85-per-square-foot, passive solar saltbox and the Marquardts' cozy, $5.60-per-square-foot log cabin — a pretty broad range of approaches and costs. This time, though, we're going to show you the lowest-cost code-certified entry we received: Richard and Susan Masons $3.55-per-square-foot post and beam home, located in the central Massachusetts countryside (see the diagrams of the Masons home in the image gallery).

The largest factor in the Masons extraordinarily low per-square-foot cost is their source of construction lumber. They cut and milled much of the framing lumber, most of the timbers, and all of the flooring, paneling, and siding from pines and oaks on their own property. Other timbers were salvaged from an old barn they purchased for $300. To form the necessary posts; beams, and planks, they purchased a portable sawmill for $2,600. Including its cost in the materials raises the per-square-foot cost to only $5.36.

Working with one's own timber requires a considerable amount of planning. Richard and Susan cut the boards for all the flooring (save the kitchen and bathroom, which are Italian ceramic tile on a plywood subfloor) two years before it was to be used, so that it would be thoroughly seasoned. Many are the horror stories told by owner-builders who've put down flooring before it was fully dried, only to have it warp, split, and draw away from its neighbors. Equally important is a place for proper storage during seasoning: For the Masons, it was a barn on their property. Boards were sawed there and properly "stickered" (stacked).

Starting Off on the Right Footer

Rick set their home on a 1 foot footing on bedrock granite, following up to sill level with a standard block-and-mortar foundation. To hug the contour of the sloping lot, Rick dropped the bottom third of the house 3 feet, in order to form a split level.

The building's frame consists of 4 bents, the timber framer's term for a section of a post-and-beam building's frame that's assembled on the ground and then raised into position. In the Masons' case, each bent is a full structural cross section along the 24 foot dimension of their home. The main posts on the bents are 8inches by 8 inches, as are the main beams forming the second-story floor. From there, parts of the second story are framed in 6 inch by 4 inch timbers.

valerie kirkland
6/28/2012 8:30:52 PM

How much would that cost in 2012? We are looking at doing the same thing, and can't seem to get an idea what it would cost us per square foot milling all of our own lumber from our property.

mother earth news fair


Oct. 21-22, 2017
Topeka, KS.

More than 150 workshops, great deals from more than 200 exhibitors, off-stage demos, inspirational keynotes, and great food!