The DIY Thing

Submitted by Andrea on November 27, 2011

Back in 2009 when this project was born, Ted and I had every intention of building the house ourselves. Ted didn't have a whole lot of building experience and I had none, but Ted thinks like an engineer and was eager for the construction challenge. He works remotely as a computer geek and has a very accommodating employer, so we had a rare opportunity to build a house without sacrificing income.

My main attraction to do-it-yourselfing was to save money. We had a good chunk of starting equity, thanks to an inheritance from my grandfather which survived two prior bouts of home-ownership. I cheerfully believed we could build our house without borrowing money and wind up owning an Almost Passivhaus free and clear.

I should pause and thank my parents, who only occasionally pointed out that things might not go as planned. My mother quoted the Yiddish proverb "Mensch tracht, un Gott lacht" ("Man makes plans, God laughs") a few times, but that was it. If she laughed and rolled her eyes at me, it was only behind my back and with great affection. When it became clear that our equity would not nearly cover the construction costs, they gave us access to the family business's line of credit, freeing us from the constraints of a standard construction loan. We'll repay their commercial lender by taking out a mortgage once the house is complete.

But I digress. The first thing that drove up our costs was the difficulties of our building site. We chose it in haste, partly because Ted wanted to start a three-year meditation retreat at the end of 2010 (in sync with our friends and teachers in a three-year retreat in Arizona). The lot is relatively secluded (good for meditating) but still very close to town. It's also close to Ted's parents, who he hoped would visit during those three quiet years. But it became clear that we couldn't possibly have a livable house in time (we don't have one a year later!). This and other considerations prompted Ted not to do the retreat.

We described our site and its challenges in a post six months ago. It is neither flat enough for a slab foundation, nor is it steep enough for a walk-out basement/garage. (The slope was hard to discern when we bought the property, because it was covered with dense brush.) And the site is riddled with ledge, which makes excavation slow and expensive.

If we had been willing to sacrifice passive-solar performance we could have sited the house more cheaply, but to us that was non-negotiable. In our land-buying haste, we didn't accurately pinpoint which way solar south was. This sounds idiotic, and perhaps it was, but our street is very twisty, and cheap compasses are not at all precise. Furthermore, solar south is 15° west of magnetic south at our latitude, and daylight saving time is the work of the devil.

It's embarrassing to talk about this publicly, since I'm opening myself to derision from the green building digerati. Building science geeks are exceptionally bright and perhaps a little touchy about not being appreciated or understood by the mainstream, which means they're occasionally catty about projects that weren't as well managed as their own. I follow a number of green building Twitter feeds, and my feelings will be hurt if any of them link derisively to my site as an example of What Not To Do. That said, we invite people to link non-derisively to this site as an example of what not to do (as well as what to do). Ted and I feel there's value in sharing our mistakes as well as our achievements.

Anyway, as I was saying, the complexity of our site and foundation dealt one blow to our DIY dreams, and the switch from 2x6 framing to I-joists was another. Our second/current structural engineer prescribed I-joists for better wind resistance and then promptly told us there was no way we'd be able to maneuver them ourselves. Until then, everyone had humored our DIY intentions, but Ben told us flat-out that we needed help and lots of it.

He was right. It took several months for Eli's highly-experienced crew to get our house enclosed and under roof, and the complexity never seems to let up. The current challenge is the exterior window trim. We'll probably share those details later, but they are an oddly costly and complicated 3-D jigsaw puzzle of rigid foam insulation, lumber, and AZEK.

We hoped at least to build the garage ourselves and also do a lot of interior carpentry, but then Ted broke his collarbone, requiring surgery. This was truly the final insult (excepting any future insults). Ted's deep yearning to build his own house and my vain wish to keep our costs down were thoroughly squelched.

It is dishonest to call this a DIY project (something we haven't actively claimed in many months). I have therefore replaced the little lemon-shaped DIY badge on the website's logo with a VT sticker. We may have failed to build this house ourselves, but by golly, it's still in Vermont!