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Book Data

ISBN: 9780930031855
Year Added to Catalog: 2004
Book Format: Paperback
Book Art: b&w illustrations and photographs, appendices, index
Number of Pages: 7 1/2 x 10, 528 pages
Book Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing
Old ISBN: 0930031857
Release Date: August 1, 1996
Web Product ID: 242

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Independent Builder

Designing & Building a House Your Own Way

by Sam Clark


IN 1975 HELEN AND JULES RABIN HIRED MY FRIEND David Palmer and me to work mornings with them as they built a house for themselves and two young daughters.

At crucial points we had a frustrating time finding answers to building questions that should not have been obscure, such as what size timber is needed for a floor beam, or the insulation value of some material. We had books describing how to build an absolutely conventional tract house, and others advocating various innovative building systems. But for the person interested in both designing and building, the underlying basics were hard to locate. We often had to rely on the advice of people more experienced (but not necessarily wiser) than ourselves, on intuition, or, as a last resort, on analogy: If the neighbor's barn roof is held up with 2 x 8s, and our house is a little wider, let's use 2 x 10s.

I spent much of the next year assembling from many sources all the basic design and construction information I wished we'd had. I put it together for myself, and for other builders and owner-builders. That was the 1978 edition of this book.

Now twenty years later, we're getting ready to revise the Rabin's house, to accommodate such things as grandchildren, central heat, and bathrooms on the first floor. So, we thought it's also a good time for a revision of this book.

The original edition provided basic information on design and construction, plus an introduction to some non-standard methods of building. Though written for owner-builders, the first edition of this book has been a valuable tool for builders, particularly the chapters and appendices that described how to size timbers, spec native lumber, estimate bearing capacity of soils, and do heat loss calculations.

This new edition, like the old one, provides more basic design tools in one place, in understandable form, than any other book.

A new version makes sense because there has been constant innovation and change in building technology and building thinking over the last twenty years. Almost every building process has been examined and redesigned by someone, who is now marketing a product that the designer or builder must evaluate or ignore.

This flood of change has affected different parts of the book in different ways.

Of course, readers will find many small updates and revisions reflecting modern practice. For instance, lumber doesn't cost 12 cents per foot anymore, and walls aren't made of 2 x 4s. There are many small changes in detailing and materials too - gadgets and products that make building a little better or a little easier.

More important to me, there are also new sections in this edition that present ways of thinking about design that were not in circulation in 1978. Ergonomics and accessible design provide strategies and techniques for designing your house according to how people do things most comfortably and efficiently, in other words, in tune with the human body.

Christopher Alexander's Pattern Language approach is another powerful tool. Alexander and his collaborators have spent many years studying forms, details, and ways of thinking about traditional building in many cultures. They've identified which "patterns" make houses warm, human, and alive. I've found the pattern language idea extremely useful, and I think others will also. There is a brief introduction included here.

Today there is an increased emphasis on bringing ecological concerns to building. Sustainable design emphasizes the ways building design burdens the environment before, during, and after construction. This sustainable approach searches out techniques that minimize building waste, promote health, and are energy efficient. There is a chapter here on this subject, from a practical builder's point of view.

The first edition of this book had only a couple of paragraphs on kitchen design, but this version has a full chapter. I've probably spent half of my time since 1978 learning about kitchen design and construction. Since most people are by now familiar with the orthodox work-triangle approach to kitchen design (which is pretty limited and misleading), I've emphasized ideas that go against the grain or supplement this simplistic approach.

New Opportunities and Obstacles

Building your own home is an ancient tradition, a wonderful adventure, and with good planning, it's a practical and economic choice. It's probably the best way for families to establish a home - at least in rural areas - without taking on a huge mortgage. But there are new challenges to overcome compared to even twenty years ago. Land costs more, and good building sites are harder to find. Materials and wages are more expensive. There is much more regulation, more required licensing.

In the 1970s we actually built houses for as little as five or ten dollars per square foot. That is unthinkable now.

The cast of characters has changed. Not long ago, there were architects to design things, contractors who mostly followed stock plans or architect's plans, and owner-builders who worked independently as best they could. Now there are many new kinds of building professionals to hire, or not hire. Some builders specialize in certain types of building, such as timber-framing or solar. There is a small army of specialists, particularly in energy-related areas, to consult if you need to. Even more significant, there is the return of the generalist in the person of the designer-builder or design/build firm. Such people were the exception twenty-five years ago, but now they are almost the rule in small-scale custom home construction.

There are owner-builder schools where you can learn design and construction skills. And there is a far deeper library of informative building books.

In short, costs are higher, but there are more resources.

There are probably fewer people today then there were twenty years ago who are in a position to take on the entire project themselves. Many owner-builders will now be working with designers, builders, and sometimes consultants who can help them plan or construct certain aspects of the house.

Understanding Innovation

Change and innovation have become the constants in our building environment. Managing them, or at least coping with them (rather than being overwhelmed), is a critical skill. Unfortunately, it's a skill that many owner-builders, architects, and builders don't really have. Though building innovation has been lightning fast, change in good building practice has been slower. The underlying principles don't change as quickly as the products do. In our small building company, we've made a few major adjustments and many small ones, yet in many ways we build much as we did in the 1970s. Some revolutionary designs and products that swept through the industry have been swept right out again a few years later - usually after many people have tried out the new approaches with mixed results.

At any given moment, the person with the checkbook, the client, gets to decide which building system to choose. But in the long term, the viability of a building system is gauged by a much more authoritative judge: Reality - what works and what doesn't. Sometimes a new idea works, builders like it, and they incorporate the new method or product. But just as often, a new idea doesn't quite work, and the quiet voice of tradition - the regular way - gets the last word.

When I started building, I had a real faith in innovative methods. Like many owner-builders and self-taught builders who didn't come up through the trades, I didn't think much of the regular, suburban-looking houses I saw around me. Illogically, I made the jump to the idea that I could come up with something better. I looked to architecture for inspiration, and to the stream of building books put out by professionals, and by other self-taught builders and owner-builders. Two books were particularly popular, Your Engineered House, and The Owner-Built Home, both of which held standard construction in contempt and promoted completely non-standard building methods. The Whole Earth Catalog also presented hundreds of alternatives.

Encouraged by such books, I and many of the other builders around me tried new approaches and materials every time out. We built domes, A-frames of recycled timbers, yurts, log houses, and stone houses like Helen and Scott Nearing's. We roofed with tin, boards, shingles, and sod. We heated with all sorts of solar systems, most of which we fabricated ourselves. We built with native materials, particularly stone and locally produced lumber, and used recycled windows and other materials. We tried everything. This was the height of the owner-builder movement.

Starting perhaps in the late 1970s, reality - what works and what doesn't - made some harsh judgments. The traditional approach to building proved to be right more often than not.

Some clever building systems simply failed to work right. Geodesic domes were hard to live in, more expensive to build than promised, and prone to leaks. Other systems, like the Nearing's stone building system, worked, but added months of extra labor to the process of building a home, and saved only a little cash. When owner-builders turned professional, as many did, some of these once-appealing systems were abandoned because they didn't cost out for our customers and there were too many "callbacks."

Many seemingly clever or economical systems failed more slowly. Board siding was drafty and subject to rot. Flat-pitched shed roofs were subject to leaks and ice-dams, at least in cold climates. Recycled windows rotted out, and didn't keep out the wind.

Column foundations are a good example of a system that looks good, but causes trouble later. Here in New England, the conventional wisdom held that a full concrete foundation was essential. Rex Roberts and other writers argued that the basement was expensive and superfluous. Like many people, I built numerous buildings on wood or concrete posts with insulated floors. This approach did save initial costs, and buildings went up fast. The foundation system was kind to the site. But over time it became clear that houses on posts had problems. The floors were cold. Pipes tended to freeze where they came into the house. Sometimes the posts themselves were subject to frost heaves or settling. Animals got under the house, pulled down the fiberglass insulation, and sometimes made nasty smells. These problems are expensive to fix.

Early solar systems were also disaster-prone. Most of these systems were homemade, and put relatively vulnerable materials like glass, plastic, and plumbing outside the protection of the house or roof overhangs. They were subject to direct assault by sun, wind, water, and cold temperatures. In Vermont, I'd say very few of the earlier sunspaces, solar greenhouses, or active solar systems really worked well. Many were roofed over, insulated under, or "decomissioned."

What I learned from such experiences is that traditional approaches to building were often smarter than they appeared. What seems ordinary at first may prove elegant and wise after a few years. Innovation is important, but even new methods that seem well engineered and brilliant may have hidden costs, maintenance problems, or unintended consequences. I think many builders came to similar conclusions.

Today, traditional building methods, and the people who were practicing them all along, have much more respect. At the same time, standard building has been changed. We have a basic vocabulary of new, good ideas that has become accepted practice. We site houses toward the sun and insulate them better. Many new products and methods have been incorporated into routine practice. Lumberyards sell them, tradespeople can install them.

We know more. Builders have greater experience with more ways of doing things, know more about design, and have more resources for evaluating ideas. I had no way of knowing that Rex Roberts' ideas didn't all work. Today there is not only twenty years of experience to go on, but I have my fingers on the calculations for timber spans, for air movement, for insulation values, and I can see for myself why a design or building approach will or will not work. I can more easily test other schemes to see if they'll work. When I'm not sure, I know informed people I can consult.

In short, the basic level of building has risen.

Making Decisions About Technologies

Among the new ideas you'll encounter, which will work? Which will be worth the added costs? Which are right for you?

I think maintaining your perspective as you consider such innovations, and learning to make decisions that you and your family can live with, is one of the trickiest aspects of being your own designer or builder, or even of working effectively with pros that you hire to guide you. I've adopted a few approaches that I hope will help.

When I have a definite view on some building technique, I'll give it, and my reasons why, but I'll also readily acknowledge when somebody else may hold an opposing view. If I think house wraps are a waste of money - which I do - I'll give my reasons. Where I can, I'll give other sources to consult if you are unconvinced.

I also provide planning routines (including the strategic and critical questions to ask) to use when you are choosing among competing building systems.

Perhaps most important, I'd like to share an attitude, which is very simple but took me some years to work my way to. Long ago, the father of owner-builder books, Henry David Thoreau, built a cabin, and like many owner-builders, he wrote his book about it. And in this book, Walden, the little cabin isn't just a house, it's a moral statement, it's the "right way," which of course implies that the conventional way, and maybe every other way, is wrong or inferior. Ever since, building writers have been making big claims for their building systems - and the obvious inference is that the garden-variety way most buildings get built isn't quite up to snuff, morally speaking.

While there are ethical choices in all large undertakings, I think people do better if they don't think of their choice of a building system so much as a moral issue, or their house design as a measure of their moral worth. It will cloud your judgment. Also, I really doubt you will discover or invent a building system that is a lot more efficient or otherwise more virtuous than what your neighbor is building right now using a traditional approach.

But do you need to have this justification? I don't think so. Build your house the way you want to build it, because you want to build it that way, because it really is "your own way," and because you're willing to take responsibility for the outcome. Build with timbers because you want to look at the structure as you contemplate your home, and remember the pleasure of cutting the joints to fit just so. Build solar because you'll enjoy all the planning now and the tinkering later, and because it will give you pleasure every time you don't buy a cord of wood or a gallon of fossil fuel.

But don't claim your house is too much better than the more ordinary one going up down the road; you may regret it later.

Using This Book

There is a spectrum of homebuilders.

Many readers will be very involved in planning their house building process, but will depend on professional designers and builders to do most of the work. Part I, New Approaches to Design, introduces innovative ideas in design that are not always part of the everyday vocabulary of most building professionals.

Part 2 will help you to purchase the right piece of land, do preliminary design work, and collaborate fully with the people you hire. For those who will be working with professionals, hiring the right people in the right way is perhaps even more important to the success of your project than the design itself. Part 3, Business, will help you figure out who to hire, how to make successful agreements with them, and how to keep your partnerships with them working over the long time-span of your project. This section of the book should also be quite useful to contractors.

Other readers will be doing most of the design as well as large amounts of the actual construction themselves. For those of you who are truly "owner-builders," building a home is a learning opportunity and a means of expression. Part 4, Building Basics, goes over many of the underlying principles and concepts that apply to all good building, no matter what building system is being used. Part 5, Construction Methods, describes basic construction techniques, but also contains further design information. For example, chapter 28, Windows and Shutters, in addition to explaining how to install windows, discusses which types of windows work best in what application, how to use recycled windows, and how to make your own windows.

My suggestion for owner-builders is to use Part 1 through Part 4 to develop your basic, spatial design. Then study the chapters in Part 5 as you design the construction details for each section of the house.

Part 5 doesn't attempt to explain every building technique. I focus on relatively simple, economical, and easy-to-understand methods which in my experience have worked well for owner-builders, and which owner-builders will enjoy. Although some of these methods are slightly different than those used by professional carpenters, I've also included many of the tricks and techniques professionals use to avoid mistakes, to make corrections when needed, and to save time. I've also concentrated on methods owner-builders often favor (recycling salvaged windows, or using native lumber, for example), but which many standard carpentry books do not cover. There are also brief summaries of a range of other economical building options that some readers will want to pursue.

For another group of readers, the process of building a home will be a major life work. If you are one of these people, you want to develop or invent new systems, build the walls with straw bales, heat the house with the sun alone, power it with the wind, build it entirely with recycled materials, or otherwise push the limits of building practice - to become part of the cutting edge of change. If this is your perspective, you may not find comprehensive and detailed instructions here for your particular building system. But you can use Part 4, which explains many of the fundamentals that apply to all types of systems. If you are even further out on the cutting edge, this book will help you do your basic planning better, and keep overall control of your project as you develop approaches that go way beyond those covered here.

This book is full of ideas that excited me at one time or another. Ideas inspire people to do months or even years of extra work, to build a house that functions well but also expresses a point of view and certain values.

The ideas that make up a good design enable us to do better work, and to understand more about what makes a home more livable and enjoyable for people in complex, inconspicuous ways. Technologies always seem important, but it is ideas that get buildings built.

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Sam Clark's Upcoming Events

  • Susan Clark at Connecting for Change: Bioneers by the Bay
    Connecting for Change Conference, New Bedford MA
    October 24, 2014, 12:00 pm


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