Living Stingy: Build Your Own House?

Building your own House by Hand

Simple House Building / November 2, 2020

A couple of years ago, we made a decision to build a home by hand. The primary reason is the savings from doing the labor ourselves. We ended up building a tiny cabin that we’re putting the finishing touches on this summer. It was a pay-as-we-go project, no construction loan, and absolutely nothing charged on credit cards or store credit. The total cost for materials has been under $2000, with a maybe an additional $1000 by the time we’re done with two additions we’re contemplating, which were not part of the original plans. We traded some time and labor for the savings, but this small project gave us an inexpensive way to get some building experience, time to think about what might be possible for when we build our home, a cozy vacation home, and a comfortable place to stay while we build our eventual home.

Now that the cabin is almost done, it’s time to get serious about what kind of house we want to build. Here are the criteria we came up with:

  1. It must be made of natural materials.
  2. At least 75% of the materials must come from our own land.
  3. It has to be affordable enough so that a construction loan is unnecessary.
  4. It must be easy to keep cool in summer, warm in winter.

Natural materials are beautiful and do not out-gas toxic chemicals. If they come from your own property- they are free. I like free. Yes, there is the expense of time and labor, but there is no shelling-out of cash or running up of debt for the basic building materials. While not impossible, it would be very challenging for all the building materials to come from one’s own land (unless you have a stash of nails & screws that the previous owner buried and left a map for you to find it). So, we set a goal of 75%. Ultimately, the design of the house will address the concerns over staying cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

While we’re going to have to make the final decisions on how to build our house this winter if we’d like to start next Spring, we’ve already discussed a number of options for a home that is natural, truly green (not green-washed), and simple enough for people like us with little building experience to actually accomplish. Here are the options as discussed so far:

Straw Bale
Interesting concept, good insulative qualities, and very simple to use. Tight bales of straw (not hay, which will deteriorate) are stacked in and secured using a lattice work of rebar, then covered in plaster. Walls can be designed to be load bearing or as in-fill to a timber-framed house (often the easier option for securing permits). We would have to purchase the bales, or we would have to grow something like oats or buckwheat, harvest it, and bale it ourselves. There are instructions on the web to build your own hand-powered baler, but we’re talking significant work to do it all by hand. Such a house would also require a foundation that gets the straw bale away from contact with the ground, especially in New England where snow is a fact of life.

Beautiful, timeless, we have plenty of them on our property, and not nearly as difficult to work with as one may think. Mortar would require attention over a couple of weeks per section to properly cure, which would be difficult with us not living at the property at the present time. Stone can keep a home nice and cool in the summer, but heating… for all the claims that stone is good for radiating heat, I’ve never heard of a cozy castle. Not saying other modern techniques wouldn’t make a stone home easier to heat in the winter, but those methods need to be considered during the building phase. Stone would also require us purchasing mortar mix.