Your house, your home, is the environment in which you’ll spend more time than any other. Because of this, it profoundly influences you and your peace of mind. It is the keynote to your survival. Consider this well before you start to design, build, or buy. It is probably one of the most important decisions you’ll ever make.
Building your own home helps you to survive in different ways. First, financially. It will cost at least 60 per cent, perhaps as much as 80 per cent, less than having it built by a contractor. Labor amounts to about half of the total cost of a house, so that is your most immediate saving. There will be no contractor and subcontractor profit to pay (usually about 10 per cent). Since you are building yourself, you’re likely to look for savings in materials and, hopefully, use recycled and free materials.
You’ll build the space you need and not waste energy and material on rooms you don’t use — attics, dining rooms, closets, basements (unused rooms to store unused possessions). When building yourself, $3,000 buys $10,000-$12,000 worth of house. There will be no 10-20 year mortgage to which you are tied with monthly payments until the house is yours. To me, having your own home is to know there is a place you control, a place that is yours. No one can tell you what to do there, when to be quiet, when to leave, when the rent or mortgage is due. It’s yours forever, if you want — your environment, to build on, to grow on, to be on. Knowing that if a certain sum of money is not raised each month your home can be taken away from you does not tend to give you the peace of mind a home should.
Homes can be built for almost nothing. I’ve built two such homes myself. This area is among the finest in the country for free or nearly free materials. It’s a scavenger’s paradise. Since it’s such a prosperous area, there’s always a lot of waste. There are many old buildings ready to be torn down, most with good siding, floors and framing wood. Areas near Apex, Burlington and Pittsboro are soon to be flooded.
There is really little good to say about the modern American house. It is to dwellings what white bread is to baking . . .
You can buy an old house about to be torn down for $30. One good old house can supply all the materials you’ll need for your new home. Your labor is free. Next time you ride into the countryside notice all the dilapidated buildings, with beautiful, grey, weathered siding, good tin on the roof, and often good structural wood. The owners often will be glad to have you remove them.
Perhaps the only good thing to say about the tobacco companies are the legacy of old tobacco barns, which are today supplying people with beautiful, inexpensive homes. They are the finest low-cost home I know. No other area has such an abundance. It will take you and your friends one day to take a barn apart and just a few weeks to reassemble. What you have then is a well-seasoned, hand-hewn, often oak or poplar log building. Usually, the only expense is for chinking, floors, and windows. You need no siding, no insulation, no framing wood. To build this from scratch, to cut and season your logs, to hewn them, notch them and erect them would take months. Someone, one hundred years ago, did it all for us.
This leads to the second reason building your own home is important for survival. It’s good for the Earth. By using used or recycled materials you are taking nothing more from the Earth, merely using someone else’s waste. This will reflect itself in the karma and feeling of your house. To me, it is my responsibility, when building anything, to get by with as little new material as possible. Every act of unneeded consumerism, every unnecessary purchase of new materials, fresh from our forest land, is like punching one more hole in a sinking boat. By using only what we need, we are aiding our own survival. If we build our own homes only with the needed space, enough not to feel enclosed but to have enough room for all our activities, we will use less materials, and have less space to heat and keep up. We will save not only our money but our land and resources as well.
The last way in which an owner-built home assists our survival is perhaps the most uplifting. It has nothing to do with our pocketbooks or our planet; it has to do with our souls and spirits, with our sane survival in an insane society. There is really little good to say about the modern American house. It is to dwellings what white bread is to baking, and Nixon to leadership. In other words, a rip-off that was sold to us for a long time before we took a close look at it, and it fell apart. Remember when you believed Wonder Bread really built bodies in eight different ways? Most houses are wastefully over-built. They are not over-engineered because they are not engineered at all. They are poorly designed, ignorant of natural laws, such as using site-to-sun relationships to maximize solar heat, and are seldom designed to make use of scientific structural strength equations. Architectural Graphic Standards says a one-story house needs 24-inch centers on stud walls yet almost all houses use 16-inch centers, wasting 30 per cent of your studs. New homes too often glorify the egos of the architects, builders and owners. Some of our older homes are tastefully done and well built, with a good feeling to them. I have seen few of our new homes that are.
Ken Kesey once said individual sanity is what we need; the issues, then, will settle themselves. That’s how I view it. Our first priority is not to save the world but to save ourselves, individually. If we can all become more sane and stable and peaceful so will our world. And building your own house, and then living, working, playing and raising your children there can make that process a lot easier.
By using only what we need, we are aiding our own survival. . . . We will save not only our money but our land and resources as well.
It’s not essential to build and live in your own home to arrive at this place, nor is it certain you’ll get there if you do, but for many of us building our own homes is a growing experience, teaching us not only skills but perseverance and confidence. And when we are finished we’ve created an organic environment that is more familiar to us than any other, with intimate knowledge of every step of its growth, every beam and rafter, every room and wall. It will be a materialization of one of your thousands of fantasies, an everyday reminder that they can come true, with some work and dedication. It will be of your design — what you want in a house. It will reflect you and contain much of yourself. It will be your home, not built for you by some contractor you never knew, designed by some architect across the country, and then built over and over again. It will be the only one of its kind, and so will have heart and spirit, and become a place of rest and growth. Your place of strength, as Don Juan would say.
If you’ve read this far and are thinking, “That sounds good, but am I capable, knowing nothing of carpentry, or housebuilding, to build my own house?”, remember, all it takes is the ability to try, and to ask someone when you don’t know something. The skills and techniques are simple. I’ve seen fine homes built by folks who never held a hammer before.
In the next issue I’ll discuss how this can be done, and tell you about some mistakes I made that you might want to watch for.