How do you build a house?
February 10, 2005 9:52 PM   Subscribe

How do you build a house? [+]

I'd like to live somewhere nice, after years and years and years in glorified boxes. I'm sick of doors that don't fit quite right, electrical systems installed by certifiable moroons, cheap-ass plumbing fixtures, poorly-installed carpet, and a thousand other annoyances, to say nothing of larger issues like bathrooms that are too small to enter and close the door without an elaborate dance around the toilet.

I can afford a modest-to-moderate amount (depending on location), and I have about an 18-month timeframe that would be especially easy to move at the end of.

How do I find a lot, an architect, contractor, financing, and everything else I need to move into my dream home? What are the big tasks, and how should they be scheduled? How do I figure out how much this is likely to cost? What else do I have to think about?
posted by spacewrench to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
buy a lot, pick a style that goes with your city. St. Louis (which I live in) has a lot of art-deco lite; si I bought a house and recently bought a number of doors and frames to augment my domicile. You're gonna have a hard road ahead as far as finding a residential architect that doesn't just do modular boxes. You're always within your rights to request to see previous works. as far as mechanical goes, if you can afford it, find a mechanical contractor/engineer that does industrial settings; he/she may have a better idea how to lay out electrical/ plumbing in a way that doesn't asault the technically aesthetic sense. Good luck! (I may be able to help on the electrical specs; email in profile.)
posted by notsnot at 11:10 PM on February 10, 2005

You may want to read House, by Tracy Kidder. It's an excellent nonfiction account of building a house.
posted by Vidiot at 1:51 AM on February 11, 2005

Just a note of warning. You are making a large assumption that new construction will be considerably better than an existing dwelling. We live in a 50 year old house with solid wood doors, 2x10(!) framing, brick and stone over block construction, etc. Modern construction methods generally don't use materials like these and if you specify higher end materials and methods be prepared for some serious, serious sticker shock. There is no grantee that your new builder won't sub things out to subcontractors that will cut corners to save money. We looked at new homes that were pretty soulless places, then decided on an older home with some character - a few built-ins, etc.
posted by fixedgear at 2:45 AM on February 11, 2005

fixedgear - how much did you pay for such a gem, if you don't mind telling? Also, pics? I am drooling with envy right now.
posted by Irontom at 5:33 AM on February 11, 2005

Reading House is a good idea, just to give you a sense of perspective and the other points of view involved in the process.
posted by yerfatma at 5:41 AM on February 11, 2005

It is Cheltenham Township, right out side Philadelphia, PA. We paid 145K five years ago, and it was small. Two bedrooms, 1.5 baths, Cape Cod. We could have lived in it forver like that, as it is just two of us. However, we had the money, refinanced, and we just remodeled the attic, spending almost another 100K but we now have 3 bedrooms and 2.5 baths and an office, and a house that is comparable to other houses in the neighborhood. We could easily get our total investment back tomorrow. Some pictures are here but ignore the bike pictures (or not).
posted by fixedgear at 6:18 AM on February 11, 2005

From what I have seen and heard, dome houses are the way to go. They are cheaper to put together and fairly easy to assemble.
posted by jasonspaceman at 7:35 AM on February 11, 2005

Best answer: Here is a thread dealing with new construction and here is what I said about it (as an apprentice architect). I see you live in LA - there are tons of existing houses in LA, do you really want to build a new one? Quality comes at a price, so prioritize what you really need versus what you want. Then call your local AIA Chapter to get in touch with professionals. Shop around. Research what you want. Basically, think of this as a 2-3 year job (it will take that long (or longer)). Ask yourself and your family if this is what you want to do. Not to sound negative, but building a new house is the most personal and time-consuming thing you could undertake. Don't get stuck on style issues or whatnot - if you get an architect, he/she will help guide you through the whole design process.

Re: Dome houses - yes there are some advantages to them (such as certain heating properties), but the interior space they make, including the weird intersections between the dome and walls, make the space - well - ugly. The total cost of ownership is no different for a custom-built dome versus TCO of any other custom-built house.
posted by plemeljr at 7:40 AM on February 11, 2005

Dome houses are fascinating, but they often have serious problems with leaks, because the the many non-overlapping seams. There are also monolithic domes, another cool idea if you like the idea of living in a grounded spaceship.

There are a number of modern construction materials/techniques, like structural insulated panels (SIPs) that go up fast and have qualities you can't get in an older home, but result in something more conventional. Developer homes are almost defined by their absence of charm, but if you get an architect, it should be possible to get some character.

I've been contemplating building as well. Right now I'm at the "talk to everyone" phase.
posted by adamrice at 8:05 AM on February 11, 2005

How big does it have to be? We bought this place from the guy who built it, and he's helped us build an addition on top of the carport that doubles the living area. It's very small. The main house is one room with a loft bedroom. But it was also only $15K in materials and took a year to build. The lot cost him another $20K. The addition is another $15K and has taken four months.
Of course, he knows what he's doing, and has the tools. (The usual tools plus a nailgun, radial arm saw and a long level.)
I have had good luck on other small construction projects going through churches and halfway houses and temp agencies to find laborers who know what they're doing.
While most houses these days are built with inferior materials, some things like Hardipanel are actually better than the old, and cheaper.
There are whole books of small house plans available. Those and careful, detailed planning will get you there.
posted by atchafalaya at 8:06 AM on February 11, 2005

As mentioned above, look into alternative building technologies. Some (in no particular order) are: SIPs, straw-bale, ICF & prefab ("factory-built"). Do this even if you intend to go with a regular "stick-built" house (I'm expressing no opinion on the relative merits of construction techniques).

Companies that deal in SIP, ICF & prefab will likely have design engineers on staff, so they can do your construction drawings for you. If you know what you want, design-wise, this will save money vs. hiring an architect (but it assumes you have a fully-formed & tested idea on what you want built, which is by no means a sure thing). I say that as someone that's presently wrapping up degrees in architecture.

One book I recommend is "Independent Builder" by Sam Clark -- he covers how to get the house you want, design issues, technical requirements, etc. etc. and focuses on standard construction techniques rather than fancy new systems.

There are also millions of "Contract Your Home!" books; check Amazon for favorites & buy a couple to at least get a grip on the whole homebuilding process, even if you don't wanna contract your own place.

The "Not So Big House" by Sarah Susanka series of books are very popular; my AIA chapter tells would-be homebuilders to buy at least the first one in the series.

I would also counsel you to please please please look into energy-efficient design.
posted by aramaic at 10:09 AM on February 11, 2005 [1 favorite]

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