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Probably the largest investment any one of us will make is in our home, whether we rent or build or buy. House building has changed from a master craft to the expensive complexity of big business with its steadily increasing cost to the consumer and inefficient use of natural resources.
Many people are looking to methods of building other than the conventional stud frame — post and beam, pole house, domes, log cabins, A-frames, and many owner-built combinations. Naturally the building business and concerned interests such as the banks do not look favorably upon these unconventional endeavors. It may be difficult to get loans to build a house for as little as $25,000. The industry is geared to building homes at $35,000 or more and banks often consider smaller investments poor risks. Also, homes with less than two bathrooms, structures with tin roofs, or owner-built homes are frowned upon.
Today’s prices are far out of reach for most young people; the average 20-year mortgage will pay the original price of a house from two to three times. Is there an alternative?
One proposal has been a building association or co-op to help share costs of bonding, insurance, equipment, bookkeeping, milling of lumber, and financing. Another idea has been a non-profit community development corporation that acts as a cooperative bank in which people could invest as in a savings account. The bank could invest in and own local businesses whose profits could provide community loans at small interest, and engage in large purchasing to cut costs. Land trusts that can never be sold again, and upon which taxes are not collected, are being set up around the country. Three or more people act as a board of trustees to establish communities or preserve the land. This prevents expensive suburban expansion and inflation of land prices. Even more common is the planned community on a shared piece of land, whose members get the use of a large tract of land without having to invest in more than a part of it, and are given a say about community land use.
Many carpenters are working independently, forming small companies to compete successfully with the larger ones. Carpenters find they make more money for themselves and provide a more personally-built house if they work independently. But an owner building his own home could use low-cost professional help.
It’s obvious that there is no one solution or any immediate answers to acquiring a home creatively and inexpensively. If a non-profit community minded corporate structure is the answer it could be several years for it to be worked out. If it’s as simple as a building association of independent carpenters, it may come sooner. It is possible for a group of people to organize themselves around the most progressive methods of developing living situations for people that are totally self-sufficient in water, electricity, agriculture, and heat.
Different kinds of houses offer individual advantages and disadvantages. The very popular pole house is simple to build and bypasses a masonry foundation, but any wood put into the ground, no matter how well treated, will probably rot within 35 years and require expensive resettling of the house on a foundation. The popular high ceilings with highly placed windows seem to be aesthetically desirable today. However, they are extremely inefficient to heat, since all warm air will rise to highest part of the room and be absorbed right out the windows. Post and beam can provide an internal nuclear structure to a house as opposed to the conventional stud frame platform building of one story on the ceiling of another. That may be a better use of resources and a longer-lasting, stronger structure. However there is little knowledge among carpenters about how to build a post and beam quickly or efficiently.
The owners building their own homes, having their first try at building and even carpentry, are finding more problems than they expected and are making mistakes. However, they have saved money for themselves and provided their own creative expression in which to live. [These ideas will be discussed more fully in future articles.]