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How to Design and Build your Own Home

Article by Margaret Rush

Construction – September 1995 – Colorado Central Magazine

“Don and I have always wanted to build our own house, but we wouldn’t have the slightest idea of where to begin.” A visitor.

“This is so neat. You built it? And you designed it also? Really, just the two of you?”

Another visitor.

Is building a mountain home with your own hands your dream? It was ours, and we did it.

Were we in the building trades? No.

My husband, Gene, is a retired geologist, and I am a retired nurse practitioner.

So how did two greenhorns like us accomplish such a monumental task?

Well, we didn’t start out with hammer in hand.

As we saw it, novices couldn’t expect to succeed unless they had worked out every detail on paper before they bought their first fifty-pound box of nails. Therefore, before we contacted local lumber yards for lumber bids, we made lists detailing the lengths and sizes of every piece of lumber we would need to frame our house. But I’ve jumped ahead of you.

How, you wonder, did we even get so far as to make a lumber list? Or, for that matter, to know what it would take to frame a wall?

First, Gene went to the library and to bookstores where books and magazine articles on those subjects abounded. The literature was accurate, up-to-date, and user-friendly, and even Salida’s little library was brimming with information.

Gene spent at least six months reading “How to’s.” “How to wire a light switch, how to design for snow load,” etc. But if this part overwhelms you, don’t panic. You can educate yourself in sections.

After all, that’s how you will build your house, first you’ll frame it, then you’ll plumb it, then you’ll wire it. You won’t have to do everything at once. And, if learning how to frame a whole house is daunting, you can just read about framing a wall. Then read about framing a wall with a window, then two windows.

(During the planning stage, I often found the “KISS” mantra helpful. I kept chanting to myself, “Keep It Simple, Stupid.”)

As Gene and I began to actually plan our house, we also found it essential to start “general” and then go “specific.” For example, we, as retired folk, are on a fixed income. We said to ourselves, “Energy costs are undoubtedly going to increase not decrease.”

The obvious solution in sunny Chaffee County to rising energy bills, without a corresponding rising income, was solar energy.

Passive solar is a simple concept. Design as many windows as possible into the south-facing wall, and put the rooms that you want to heat-up quickly in the morning on the east side of the house. In our case, we wanted the kitchen and the bathroom to warm up early. Thus, we put the bedrooms on the west side, preferring that they heat up later. Voil , we had the beginning of a floor plan.

There are ways to get fancy with solar heating, like Trombe walls, heat “envelopes,” and heat stored in water tanks and rocks. But the good news for beginners working within budget constraints is that basic passive solar concepts, such as window placement, really do work. Last winter, for the entire winter, our heating bill totaled $40 for supplemental electric heat, plus one-half cord of wood.

Another “general” observation we made: we weren’t getting any younger, so we wanted a house with low maintenance in our future. The paint which is baked onto steel siding has a lifetime guarantee, and that was talking our language — no outside painting ever again! Our steel roof’s paint is good for twenty years, but Gene says by then he’ll be too old to notice any flaws.

By going from “general” to “specific” our house plans took shape naturally. But I personally had trouble imagining what something would look like “for real.” So I made a “doll house” out of poster board, complete with plastic-wrap windows. Using a Penney’s catalog, I studied the dimensions of stoves, couches, refrigerators, beds, etc. Then, I made miniature furniture from the information I had gathered, and placed them in my mini-home.

This activity enabled me to say things like: “We don’t need to have two feet of floor space there,” which is important because every square foot costs money. And also, “It would be better if `this’ door swung `that’ way so there would be room to move around the table.”

With my miniature completed, I realized that one window would have to be moved over or it would be part of the shower stall. And I even took my poster-board model to the building site and peered through it’s bedroom window to see if the “Angel of Shavano” would be the first thing I saw in the morning.

As it turns out, the angel is the second, Gene is the first. But my plastic-wrap window told it true, Shavano peeks in just as planned.

In house building, abundant planning is the road to self-confidence. And self-confidence is absolutely necessary.

When your plans are right, so are you. It doesn’t matter what your Mother did or didn’t do to you in your childhood, your plans are your armor. A wood stove salesman won’t be able to sell you a bigger, more expensive stove than you need because you will know exactly how many BTU’s it’s going to take to heat the amount of space you’ve designed.

An excavating company won’t be able to bill you for “consulting time” because you will tell them what you want and how you want it done, not the other way around.

Shopping the electrical aisle in the hardware store will be a snap because you’ll know exactly how many outlet boxes you’ll need and which kind, and how many feet of wire to buy. (Or miles of wire. In our case, we put in three quarters of a mile.)

With adequate plans, you’ll have self-confidence, and rightly so.

But you’ll also need courage.

Yep, just like the lion in the Wizard of Oz. You’ll need physical courage to wrap your legs around the bars of rented scaffolding and arch out while you’re thirty-two feet off the ground — because that’s the only way to reach the last piece of gable that needs painting.

But, let me tell you from the wisdom I’ve gained from having been through this, that even more than physical courage, you’ll need emotional courage.

“Toenailing” is a way of joining vertical and horizontal surfaces by driving the nail in obliquely. Yet even though the toenail wasn’t my own, (although that happened, too), it took courage to hit a toenail one more time when the area around it was so full of half-moons from where I had missed that the wood resembled hammered copperware. But it took even more courage to laugh about it.

It took courage to “keep a stiff upper lip” when my nose was red and dripping, and my fingers ached and my toes were beyond feeling, because it was forty degrees both outside and inside the day we pushed stiff wire through drilled holes in the rafters. Rafters I couldn’t reach without being on a ladder — even though my back and legs quaked at being on a ladder so long.

It took courage to walk down the plumbing aisle once I realized I either resembled the Pillsbury dough boy or the Michelin tire man, although I’m not quite sure which, what with the five layers of old clothing I’d put on to keep warm and my white-plaster-covered hair and face. People stared, even when I didn’t feel like being stared at.

It took courage to say, “Please forgive me, I’ll try harder next time,” when my husband wished out loud that I’d learn to “talk like a man,” after I had responded, “Probably” in response to his question, “Do you have it?” (Referring to the 100-pound sheet of plywood flooring he was standing under).

It took courage on his part to say, “Yes, honey, I see your point,” when he had just finished the molding around the skylight and I said, “Even though I know we planned it that way, now that it’s in, well, you know it just doesn’t look right. Couldn’t we change it?”

But it takes even more courage to live with your life “on hold” for months or maybe even years — because the elves won’t sneak in during the night and finish your building projects, (even if you have laid all of the materials out for them.)

I remember when I was pregnant people would say, “Haven’t you had that baby, yet?” Well, when we were building people kept saying, “Haven’t you finished that house yet?”

Now, it’s not unusual for our visitors to ask us if we’re proud of ourselves for having designed and built our own home. But that question tends to tongue-tie me.

“Pride” isn’t my dominant feeling as I lounge in front of the fire in my comfortable, peaceful home looking out my windows at the mountain ranges which surround me.

My feeling is one of gratitude.

I feel grateful for those who build for a living who were willing to share “the tricks of the trade” through books, and magazine articles, and in face-to-face encounters.

I’m grateful for a husband who knew the “devil was in the details” and went at him pitch fork to pitch fork until he brought Satan down.

I’m grateful for my tenacious stubborn streak because it always made me climb that ladder one more time.

And I’m grateful to have a warm, cozy, place where visitors can come and ask me questions which force me into defining to myself just exactly what it is I feel.

Gene feels grateful that we didn’t “break the bank”. In order to insure the house, we had to have its value appraised, and we found out we had built our home for 60 cents on the dollar!

Another question our visitors ask is, “Was it fun building a house?”

But that strikes me as a strange question to ask about a major endeavor. Is it fun to raise a child? Is it fun to earn a doctorate? Is it fun to learn a foreign language?

Certainly building has its moments of joy, laughter and tears, but is it fun? I don’t know.

So here’s what we’ll do — when you finish building your home, we’ll ask you.

Margaret Rush and her husband, Gene, are finally finding time to enjoy living in their new house near Salida.