our house 1

It had long been a dream of mine to build a home, and managing my own project should be easy, so I thought. But project management requires a lot of time, and for a do-it-yourself-er that’s in addition to one’s regular job. As an architect, designing one’s own home has been likened to a surgeon operating on his own brain. There is a desire to try out ideas— often several at once, and a tendency to put off decisions. Through the course of working on my own house I learned a lot, made a few mistakes, and still have some work to do. Perhaps you might find the process interesting. First, some background.

My wife and her adult daughter had a close relationship, having lived in various communities over the years. Her daughter had recently returned to the area, was now married with one child and had a 2nd on the way. So when we began to consider a house for our own small family of three, the notion of sharing an extended family home arose.  After searching for land a while, we settled on an established location, so as not to be completely dependent on a car. It was 50’s ranch house bordering on parkland, yet within walking distance to town. On a 1-acre site, the house had been upgraded a bit, but was largely intact, with room to grow. After the purchase— the kids— soon to be a family of four, moved into the house as it was.

The program called for one wing for the young family, another wing for us, shared living spaces, and a studio for my practice. Budget as always was a concern, so making the best use of the existing bones was the challenge. A garage and link that had been built by the previous owner became the focus of major work. There were also problems with the original layout— especially the entry and kitchen, so a plan evolved to phase the work. We would first build our wing while the kids lived in the existing house. Once complete, they’d move into the new portion with a temporary kitchen, and then we’d renovate the other side. When all was complete, they’d move back into their side and we’d move into ours. With the extended family program and phasing, the degree of difficulty was set pretty high. Taking on the project management and some of the work myself, added further height to the bar.

We started by taking apart the garage/link, saving the shingles and trusses for re-use. I signed up for the LEED— Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design— house certification program, at the time in its pilot phase. This required a lot of paperwork documenting all aspects of construction. Hiring sub-trades was a bit of a trick. We started during a boom, and getting subcontractors to the site took weeks or months. We were able to use much of the existing garage foundation, extending it up with a stem wall, and bumping out a front area for the studio. By the time the concrete was in, the snow was flying. In the spring I hired a young crew of carpenters and paid them by the hour. In this case I’d have done better with a fixed price, but that decision can cut both ways. For better energy performance, I strapped the interior walls myself, and we applied 1.5″ of closed-cell foam followed by cellulose, known as a flash and fill method of insulation. Given the existing garage slab, and my desire to raise the interior ceilings, we ended up with quite a complicated envelope rather than a simple box with easy access to run services. For the ceilings we used either closed-cell foam or cellulose depending on whether there was an attic or not. The existing house had hot-water baseboard heat, so we extended that system, and added a radiant slab with integral colored concrete to the mudroom & studio.

It’s easy to overestimate one’s capacity to work on one’s own project. After all, the motivation is pretty high— the pleasure of making something for oneself and saving money to boot. But the effort gets strung out into evenings and weekends, and construction fatigue can settle in. For our two-phase project, the typical schedule of trades was doubled. By the time the first phase was habitable, it had already been a couple of years and we’d spent more money than anticipated. It’s a pitfall of the D-I-Y approach that you don’t often take the time to fully price the work, at least I didn’t. One assumes that sweat equity will make all the difference and render any project affordable. But the cost of materials, systems and trades is not reduced, and small upgrades to the performance and quality of finishes add up quickly. After moving the kids over with a temporary kitchen installed in my future studio, we took a deep breath, and plunged into Phase Two.