In my fifteen years of being involved with sustainable building, I have seen many motivated owner-builders get into home building projects that spin out of control. Costs and timelines expand well beyond expectations and final performance and finish of the building doesn’t always match expectations.
This shouldn’t be too surprising. I began my building adventure as an admittedly clueless owner builder, so I understand very well how good intentions and positive energy don’t necessarily lead to the best results. As I’ve learned in the fifteen years since building my own home, the process of creating a good, environmentally-sensitive, energy-efficient home is not simple. The basic concepts are pretty easy to wrap one’s head around, but the execution involves so many decisions and choices, all of which impact each other and the final result. As soon as you throw some unconventional materials and systems into the equation, it can get even more tangled.
However, this should not prevent prospective owner-builders from designing and building their own homes. There is nothing more satisfying in life than to be responsible for the walls around and the roof over one’s family, and it is a manageable task. There are several important factors in tackling your own home:
- Learn from the mistakes of others. Chances are, somebody has already tried to do what you want to do, and has valuable lessons learned to share. Original mistakes are unavoidable, but repeated mistakes are just expensive and wasteful.
- Set clear goals for the project. Most owner-builders go into their projects with a strong sense of what it is they are trying to achieve, but often have not gone through a process of actually articulating their goals and spelling them out clearly. Doing this gives you a strong template against which to make all the myriad decisions that will arise as you go through the process.
- Be realistic. You know that sign you see in some workshops, the one that says: “You can have it fast, cheap or good. Pick two of the above.” That sign is true, and is very applicable to building one’s home. Another truism applies to homebuilding: “If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.” The cheap, environmentally-sensitive, super energy efficient, code approved, heat-it-with-a-candle, build-it-out-of-scrap home is a fine dream, but not a realistic plan!
- Know how to ask for advice, and how to assess the advice you’re given. Everybody in home building has an opinion. From your designer to the building official to the guy at the paint store, everybody is willing to tell you how you should be doing it. They’re not all right, and they’re not all wrong, because there are lots of ways to build a house. You need to know what kind of house you want to build, and what motivation your advisors have when they share their opinions. When faced with conflicting advice, think clearly about your goals and which advisors share similar goals. When advice contradicts your chosen path, don’t ignore it completely, but don’t feel like you have to change that path either. If there is good, sound, trustable advice that supports your choices, it will likely work.
- No home is perfect. Building a house is really a process of making compromises and accepting imperfections. Buildings are complex objects, and custom homes are one-off creations. If you can build the same house three or four times, you’d have it all ironed out (hopefully). But since you’re probably only building it once, know now that it will have flaws that could have been avoided if only you’d known better. This is easier to swallow with some perspective… which can come from realizing that every building you’ve ever been in is probably just as flawed as your own. You usually just don’t notice it when you weren’t responsible. And lots of times your “flaws” can also be “opportunities.” Approached creatively, the unexpected in a building project can often become beautiful, unique features.
- It will cost more than you expect. A building that is finished for its anticipated budget is rare. So to avoid being surprised, don’t plan to build a house that will cost every penny you have. Because it will cost you all of those pennies, plus a few more. A good budget anticipates the worst and then makes additional provisions beyond the worst case scenario.
January 13 -15, 2012
Having been through this process many times on many different kinds of projects, I have a strong interest in helping people work their way through this maze and realize the best possible results from their home building projects. I enjoy sharing my experience and research into many different building materials and mechanical systems, and giving the kind of advice that has nothing to do with selling anything to anybody.
At the Design Your Own Sustainable Home workshop
, the group format allows us to discuss the full range of options you’ll be facing, think through the advice you’ve already been given and the research you’ve already done, and shape all of those ideas into a sound basis for designing your home.
Homeowners expect to pay an awful lot of money for designs, labour and materials to achieve their dreams… but a little bit spent early on for advice – whether through workshops, books or consultations – can save tens or even hundreds of times the initial investment. We think this homeowners workshop will be a great investment in your future home.
The workshop runs from 7pm on Friday, January 13 until 4pm on Sunday, January 15.