First Steps in Building a Home by Hand

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.

A timber-framed house is familiar, and not likely to pose problems in getting a building permit. If you have a lot of trees, then perhaps you could invest in a portable saw mill and high-end chain saw. That would surely be an expense, probably around $4000 when all is said and done, just on equipment. If you plan to mill lumber for relatives, friends, and neighbors, you may be able to start a side business and more than recoup your money.  Or, you could sell it once you are done building your home, and get a significant amount of the purchase price back.  (Keep the chainsaw, though.)

Rammed Earth
This sounds like a fun and simple project.  Fill something, stack what you’ve filled, and plaster over.  Many people fill sand bags or used tires.  If you have an auto shop or tire place nearby, you might be able to get the tires for free, because they can be a pain for disposal. Do the tires out-gas chemicals?  Maybe. I haven’t explored whether or not it would be an issue yet. But, filling bags with soil from our own land… messy, tedious, but (I apologize for the pun upfront) dirt-cheap. Please note: once plaster is up, it is very difficult to tell if it were sand bags, filled tires, straw bale, or cob.

Basically a mud mixture from clay, sand, water, and straw.  Mix them all up in a tarp by stomping on it with your feet, and then plop the mixture together and form a wall. It has to be protected from rain during construction or it will ooze away on you. Very much like building a sand castle, except far more messy. Could be a lot of fun, providing bathing facilities are build ahead of time. It also has a curing time, which for us would be problematic unless we lived there full time. We do have a LOT of clay soil in one section of our property, and the amount of straw necessary is minimal, and could easily be grown on our land without having to purchase it. Depending on the season, we have a running stream very close to the building site, that we could get water from, and a year round brook on the property which is a little further away.  We would, however, have to have sand delivered.  Walls would have thermal mass, contributing to the ease of maintaining a comfortable temperature. It has the same concerns as straw bale, such as a foundation sufficient to keep it higher off the ground to prevent contact with moisture, as well as roofs that extend a little farther to better protect from rain and snow.

Log homes are beautiful, are naturally insulative.  All that is really required are good, tall, straight trees.  If your land doesn’t have a lot of these, then a log home isn’t going to be any less expensive for you than a traditional home.  Do we have these trees on our property?  Good question.  We have some, that I know for a fact.  Do we have enough?  I don’t know. Some of this could be mitigated by not having many long, straight walls.  Corners and alcoves can compensate for the lack of many long logs, and provide private nooks for reading, crafting, or a perhaps a small home office.  Obviously, log cabins are vulnerable to fire and termites, whereas the other building methods we’ve looked at are not.

Cord Wood
What do you do if you have a lot of trees, but not the right types of trees that produce log, straight logs for a log home? You build with cord wood. The wood is split and is used very much as stone is in stone masonry, and the ends of the spit wood can be used as decorative touches by mixing and matching shapes and sizes. It is secured in place with mortar. You can use a mortar mix from the home improvement store. Because of the lightness and softness of wood, cob can be used successfully as the mortar, and the combination of the two methods is called Cobwood. Light and color can be added by placing colored glass in the mortar or cob. After splitting the wood, the wood is left to dry (about 9 months, including one summer for the heat to help dry it), and the wood becomes much lighter and will have done its shrinking.  It is much lighter than stone, making it an easier masonry project purely from a “lifting” perspective, especially if you are building upwards with two or three stories. Of course, if you are not around much, and people know you are not around much, and you have a huge, visible stash of pre-split wood, it may just walk away. Some measures for securing it should be made, or plan on being more of a presence at your property. It also provides natural, insulative mass to help keep the inside temperature comfortable.

Well, those are the options I’ve found so far on building methods that are suitable for building with little-to-no experience, using natural materials, many of which may be on one’s own property, and therefore, available at no cost. Hopefully, this list of building methods has inspired you to consider building a home, without incurring tons of needless debt, and live in a home made by your own by hands. If you’d like more information on one or some of these building techniques, or you need more convincing that you really can build your own home by hand, check out the books below.

Serious Straw Bale: A Home Construction Guide for All Climates (Real Goods Solar Living Book)

The Straw Bale House (Real Goods Independent Living Book)

The Stonebuilder's Primer: A Step-By-Step Guide for Owner-Builders

Building with Stone

Log Construction Manual: The Ultimate Guide to Building Handcrafted Log Homes

Living Homes: Stone Masonry, Log, and Strawbale Construction

The Cob Builders Handbook: You Can Hand-Sculpt Your Own Home

The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage: The Real Goods Solar Living Book

Earthbag Building: The Tools, Tricks and Techniques (Natural Building Series)

The Rammed Earth House: Revised Edition

Cordwood Building: The State of the Art (Natural Building Series)

4 Responses to “First Steps in Building a Home by Hand

  • Have you looked at a stationary, permanent yurt as a possibility for your home? They’re beautiful, and designed to be frugal in terms of resources needed, easy to put up and take down (although you’d want a permanent one, I’m guessing), cool in summer, warm in winter, and resistant to a wide variety of truly awful weather, after all. 🙂

    • Hi Laughing Collie,

      I apologize for not addressing your comment until now. It was buried in spam, and I hadn’t seen it until I did some recent, major maintenance on the site.

      We did think about it. For my house, I’d really like some thick walls, and not a wooden lattice with cloth. But, I’d love to have one for an office space. My midwifery course that I’m taking is held in a yurt. They are very attractive, semi-permanent structures.

      Thank you for your comment!

  • I liked your postings and all the info you provide on your site. We are in the process of packing up our house in SC and moving to a rental home in Maine near where we have 17 acres that are almost paid off. My family has been very skeptical that we could build a house by ourselves without constructions loans and what not, but we have been studying this for years and now it’s just time to go and get our dreams. We are considering cordwood first, log second, with the potential to add a shipping container or two. If you have any support, comments, whatever I would love to hear from you. Especially since we may consider building a small structure while we consider our forever home. Thanks!

    • Howdy, soon to be neighbor! I applaud your efforts, and don’t listen to the naysayers. We built a small cabin, have a few finishing touches to put on it, and then it’s on to building the house. Have we had help? OH YES! We are so fortunate to have amazing and talented friends willing to give of their time and effort and skills/expertise. But, you CAN do it. Be that example to others. We haven’t moved there yet, as there are a few family obligations that have us tied here in MA for the time being, but it won’t be long now.

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