Essential Advice for the Owner-Builder

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What every owner-builder aspires to receive.
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Getting any home plans approved is a process. The important thing is to start early and learn what's required.
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Buildings with alternative methods or materials — such as this straw bale house — may require some extra work to get building plans approved.
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This North Carolina straw bale house was buiolt with all the unique details the owner-builders wanted and was approved by local building officials.
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This house in Maine is being built with timber frame construction.

Becoming the owner-builder of your own house is a great adventure. It gives you the freedom to design and build what you want, provides great personal satisfaction if you do the work yourself, and can save a lot of money along the way. But for many people who dream of building, it’s hard to dismiss one nagging thought: “What if they won’t let me?”

“They,” of course, are the folks at the local building department. Complying with building codes can seem intimidating. However, if you think of it as a process, much like the actual building of that dream home, you can get through it one step at a time.

Doing your homework is essential, especially if you plan to build with alternative materials or techniques. Knowing what you need to do and where to find the information you need will help you get your building approved and may even improve your home’s design.

Where to Start

Building codes establish minimum standards for safety and health, and if you decide to build your own home, you’ll need to prove that it meets these standards. There are three main phases of the process:

  • Gathering information and doing the initial planning.
  • Designing the house and submitting your specific plans for approval and permitting.
  • Building, passing the inspections, and getting your certificate of occupancy.

Where you build matters because building, zoning and other regulations vary from place to place, as do the conditions at and around every building site. Building codes in rural areas tend to be less stringent than those in the suburbs or in town, where buildings are closer together and people are more concentrated.

Today, most city, county and state governments have Web sites with information about their permitting processes, zoning laws and other requirements. They often answer common concerns and provide information on how to get additional help.

Becky Baker, chief building official for Jefferson County, Colo., has advice for owner-builders at the beginning of their process.

“Ideally, have a conceptual meeting with the building department early on to talk about what you want to do, especially if it is unusual,” she says. “You can find out what you need to do and what codes are enforced in the area.” Baker says most building departments provide handouts that describe their processes, fees, minimum requirements for plans and inspections, guidelines for standard construction, and checklists for other approvals needed.

Be sure to ask about requirements specific to owner-builders. Some jurisdictions restrict what work can be done by homeowners, so knowing what the rules are where you intend to build is crucial.

“Although we know we’ll have to spend more time with most owner-builders, we don’t mind,” Baker says. “We start with a premise of respect. We assume that owner-builders want to do the right thing and that we have the same end goals — a safe, affordable, durable, comfortable home.”

Baker has one more piece of advice for those who haven’t yet bought their land, especially for those who want to build with alternative materials or techniques: “Make visiting the building and zoning departments part of your routine, like checking out local schools, before deciding where you want to buy land, build and live. It makes it much more likely that you will get to build what you want to build.”

Getting the Technical Plans

A checklist from the building department, describing what plans and inspections are needed for a permit, also reveals what the codes cover. Whether you can produce these required plans yourself or will need help with the design or drawings will depend on the complexity of your design, your level of skill and knowledge, and local codes and rules governing when a design professional is required. At a minimum, you typically need:

  • A scaled site plan showing adjacent streets, dimensions and locations of existing structures, setbacks, easements and any other significant features.
  • A detailed foundation plan.
  • A dimensioned floor plan showing rooms and their uses with locations of plumbing fixtures.
  • A roof framing plan (possibly a floor framing plan).
  • Elevations (exterior views) of all sides of the building.
  • Section views (views cut through the structure) to show structural details and connections.
  • An electrical plan showing the location of the service entrance, lights, outlets, and special circuits for electric stove, clothes dryer and air conditioning equipment.
  • A plumbing plan showing water, drain, waste and vent lines.
  • A mechanical plan showing heating, cooling and ventilation equipment and ductwork.
  • General structural and architectural details, notes and specifications.

Some technical design questions can be answered by the building department, but don’t be a nuisance. If you are new to designing houses but want to do your own plans, consider hiring an architect or professional designer for a couple of hours to have him or her review your preliminary plans. An architect will usually have insights and strategies that can save time and, frequently, more money than their fees.

Be willing to admit when you are in over your head. For example, you may need an engineer for the structural design or the septic, mechanical or plumbing systems. Better to seek help in the design phase than after your plans have been submitted and rejected, or worse, discovering what was wrong with the design after building it.

Consider this approach for any part of the process you don’t feel confident tackling yourself, including once you begin building. You often can hire experienced tradespeople by the hour to help with the work and teach you how to do it at the same time.

Beyond Building Codes

It is worth noting some of the other regulatory hoops through which you may have to jump, depending on where you decide to build. The most obvious are zoning and land use codes as well as specific restrictions that may apply to your particular piece of property, such as subdivision or homeowner association CC&Rs (covenants, conditions and restrictions). Other restrictions typically relate to water, gas or electric utilities, easements, grading, erosion control and highway or street right of way considerations. In historic districts, you may have to comply with architectural rules governing what can be done with both new and existing buildings, and many places have ordinances protecting indigenous plants and wildlife.

Don’t be discouraged by these restrictions. You probably won’t have to deal with them all, and most are fairly routine matters. The folks who administer these requirements usually are well versed in helping people through the process.

Using Alternative Materials

If anything in your plans might pose a problem for the building department, address it as early as possible. If your plans include alternative materials or construction methods, such as cordwood or straw bale building, discuss and work through any concerns at the earliest stage in the process rather than once your plans have been rejected, and your construction schedule put on hold.

Laura Bartels, now a natural building consultant for GreenWeaver, in Carbondale, Colo., was an environmental educator when she and her husband built their pioneering straw bale home in Eagle County, Colo., in 1995. Her instincts as an educator led to the ideal strategy to work with building officials who had never heard of straw bale construction.

“I realized the building officials would not have time to research alternatives on my behalf,” Bartels says. “So I went in as an educator, with a binder of all the information I could find about straw bale construction, and talked informally about what I wanted to do. I left the binder with them, giving them lots of time to study it. When questions came up, I did the legwork and got the information to satisfy their concerns.” She kept a positive attitude through the whole process, got the permit and built their home without needing an architect or engineer.

Don’t be surprised if your plans are not approved as submitted, even if you’re building with conventional materials. There usually are details that need to be clarified, added or corrected. The plans should come back with notations explaining deficiencies and citing specific code sections that must be met. Be sure you understand what is required to satisfy the plan reviewer. Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

If something significant has been questioned or rejected, ask for a meeting with the building official to seek a resolution that gives you what you want and also satisfies the building department’s obligations. In the end, if you can’t reach a satisfactory solution, you have the right to an appeal process.

Passing the Inspections

Once your plans are approved, you will receive a permit with a list of required inspections. Let the work begin! The inspections are sequenced to make it as easy as possible for work to flow naturally and still allow the building inspector access to all work that needs to be inspected. Don’t inadvertently cover up work that has yet to be inspected, because you will be required to re-expose it.

Remember that inspectors have many sites to visit in a day and a large territory to cover. Not everyone is happy to see them. Make your job site an exception. Most inspectors have worked in the building trades; respect them for what they know.

If you fail an inspection and don’t understand why, ask for the specific code requirement so you know what needs to be done. If the problem is that the work doesn’t match what is called for on the plans, find out if the work as done still meets the code. If so, you may choose to go to the building department and get approval for the change rather than redo the work. If inspectors want you to do something that differs from the approved plans, they will need to resolve the issue with the plans examiner. If it is the inspector’s personal opinion or preference rather than the code, you should point this out and if necessary, bring it to the attention of the building official.

In most cases, when something needs to be corrected, just do it gladly and move on to the next thing. There will be lots of minor items that need to be changed or fixed, and a good relationship with the inspector will speed the whole process.

After you pass your final inspection, you will get a certificate of occupancy, meaning you can move into your new house! The final inspection doesn’t cover certain aspects of the finish work such as paint, trim, floor and window coverings, interior doors (except a door into a garage, which is required for fire separation), and some other minor work that does not require a permit or inspection. You may even choose to move into your new home before it is totally finished, though most owner-builders will tell you that it’s much easier if you finish it all before you move in. On the other hand, they’ll also tell you that a house is never really finished anyway.

10 Steps for Getting Unconventional Projects Approved

  1. Start early – it’s a process.
  2. Gather information about the jurisdiction and applicable codes.
  3. Gather information about the specific alternatives.
  4. If needed, find and enlist the help of allies and sources of expertise. Maintain a positive attitude and take the high road.
  5. Meet and share information with the building officials.
  6. Get specific feedback from the building officials — listen carefully; get it in writing. This is a process of building trust — pay attention to the relationships.
  7. Address concerns and objections as directly, factually and reasonably as you can. Demonstrate patience and persistence.
  8. Carefully consider all your options — appeals, special agreements, political pressure.
  9. Acknowledge and thank those who helped.
  10. Share the lessons you’ve learned with others.

For a more detailed version of this list, visit the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT).

Information Resources

Homebuilding Debt-Free: Guide for the Owner-Builder
by Lynn Underwood

Building Your Own House: Everything You Need to Know About Home Construction From Start to Finish
by Robert Roskind

You Can Build It!
58 page ICC booklet of code guidelines with information and advice for “do-it-yourselfers.” Available from ICC for $4.

International Code Council

Jefferson County Division of Building Safety

Development Center for Appropriate Technology

David Eisenberg, director of the Development Center for Appropriate Technology in Tucson, Ariz.,is co-author of TheStraw Bale House. He writes a column for Building Safety Journal, “Building Codes for a Small Planet,” is a contributing editor to Natural Home and speaks frequently on alternative construction, green building, appropriate technology and building codes.