Back in Colorado and Things Are Getting Real

I’ve been holding off on posting the house plans for our DIY home build until we’ve received approval from the county. We’re currently finalizing the plans with our engineer, Sam Caston, to ensure it will be structurally sound. We are required by the county to have a structural engineer review and assess house plans. Also, a surveyor will be at the property in a few days to survey the land and create a site plan (also required for a building permit). Once we submit for permits, I’ll post the plans.

DIY home build
Meeting with Sam, the engineer

In the meantime, let me lay out some background information on the goals we have intended for our DIY home build design.

Both Dave and I are environmentally conscious and we both believe in waste reduction, energy efficiency and sustainable resourcing. I had to ask Dave then, if we’re such tree huggers, why are we building a house instead of buying one? Why use more resources on building a new house versus just fixing up one that already exists? How could this be environmentally friendly?

As Dave explained it, there are pros and cons to both options. We could buy a house that is an energy sink, therefore costing more money in energy bills and even more in refurbishing costs to get it to suitable energy efficiency standards. Also, Dave has remodeled and refurbished houses before. Living in a house that you’re trying to fix up can be real pain in the backside, he says. I can believe that. We were doing that on the sailboat, living on it and fixing it up, and it made a challenging task completely infuriating at times.

However, as much as I’d like to say building a new, energy efficient house is the better way to go; both financially and environmentally, is just not accurate.

How much so is dependent on the details of our building materials and resources. That’s where things such as how they’re sourced and where, how they’re produced and disposed of and how long they last.

According to the U.S. Green Building Council, in 2004, buildings accounted for 39% of carbon dioxide emissions and are responsible for consuming 70% of the electricity load in the U.S. The article argues that green buildings will play a vital role in combating climate change.

For us to refurbish a house in order to make it green, we’d have to take out a mortgage, buy a house, then invest a significant amount of money to make it green. We know people who have purchased homes only to find out that they were lemons and required copious amounts of money to make it something that works. Plus, consider all of the waste created when gutting a house. Or… we can build a green house with cash, get it to a point that we can live in it (aka Certificate of Occupancy or CO for short), and continue to invest into it as the years go by.

This is where Dave and I have some difficult decisions ahead of us.

Would we like our DIY home build to be the most environmentally friendly house we possibly can? Of course! If money grew from trees, we’d be set! Unfortunately, there are no trees in Antarctica and therefore, not much money.

Realistically, finances are going to play a significant role in the nature of our building materials. We’re going to do the best we can, but there may be times we simply can’t afford reclaimed wood or 100% recycled materials. What we will do, however, is build the house so that it is incredibly energy efficient with the goal of moving more and more that direction as we can afford to.

Pros of our DIY Home Build Design

  • .High R value; this is the insulating capacity in the house, higher R value indicates that it will maintain a regular internal temperature more efficiently thus reducing energy to effectively heat and cool the house.
  • Low-E windows to reduce thermal loss.
  • Fire-resistant siding. The High Park fire raged through our area in 2012, burning over 87,000 acres. There are still bare concrete slabs in our neighborhood where entire houses burned down. We’re building a very fire-resistant house, needless to say.
  • Fire-resistant metal roof, which is 100% recyclable in the future. They are either completely or at least partially made from recycled materials. This will also come in handy for water collection – especially now that it’s legal in Colorado!
  • Tankless water heaters and an interior cistern to reduce energy consumption by the well pump and hot water. By using 2 on-demand water heaters we reduce the distance for heated water through the slab. For some reason there are mixed opinions about tankless water heaters in the United States. Dave and I have both used them outside of the U.S. and have faith in them.
  • LED lighting throughout the house.

And since it can be pretty cold in the winter…

  • We’ll have both a propane and wood-burning stove. With Dave’s prior experience as a wild land firefighter, he’s an avid believer in reducing fuel loading in our wild spaces. The benefits of prescribed burns include improvements for the ecosystem and substantial reduction for the risk of intense wild fires. Unfortunately, Colorado banned prescribed burns until only recently and the forests surrounding us are heavy with fuel (trees that are dead and down). We will obtain permits through the Forest Service to harvest these dead and down trees to burn in our stove. This will help to reduce fuel loading in National Forests while also saving on energy costs to heat the house. It’s not as green as solar panels, but it’s still an environmentally viable option.
  • Radiant flooring. This will help to heat the house and reduce the need for using the propane and wood-burning stoves as often.
  • Energy recovery ventilator (ERV) will also help reduce thermal loss. This is a handy little system that keeps approximately 50-80% of the heat in the house. It also retains a percentage of the relative humidity while removing stale air and cycling in fresh air from outside.
  • Raised heel trusses to allow for additional insulation at the eves.

Future DIY home build plans include building a solarium onto the house which will work to passively heat the house, and will be used for a year-round garden.

Our goal is to have all appliances be Energy Star rated. Unfortunately this may take some time given that these units are often costly. We’re hoping to afford certified lumber for the build. Certified lumber comes from trees that are are sustainably harvested and replanted which is a big priority for us. Of course, nothing but dual flushing toilets in our abode. If you don’t know what these are, you should travel outside of the U.S. more, or you can click on the link to learn about how great these are. Finally, solar. Yes. We hope to incorporate solar panels, don’t we all? It’s all about the Benjamins on this DIY home build project though.

In the end, what are the pros and cons of building your own house versus buying one?

Ultimately, it depends, given the smorgasbord of variations in the details. The devil is in the details, after all. For us, not having a mortgage was key. This has definitely been a tricky goal to master, though. It’s not yet been mastered of course. Coming up with the amount of cash needed to get us to a point where we can move into the house has been challenging. Actually we won’t know if we have enough until it’s all said and done. As we’ve learned, there will be fluctuations in your budget that you could never have foreseen. And woefully, our battle with money is only just beginning. Hence our year and a half stint in Antarctica. We also plan to sell any and all bodily fluids society will pay for. Whatever brings in a buck.

There is definitely something to say about owning a better quality home for the price which goes hand in hand with being energy efficient at a lower cost than retrofitting. This is going to save money down the road. You get to design to your specifications which can lead to easier upgrades and repairs in the future since you fully understand the components of the house. Finally, the enormous satisfaction of having built your own home. I know this isn’t appealing to everyone, but to folks like Dave and myself, it makes all the difference in the world. These are some of the major reasons why we are deciding to DIY home build.