A house goes together much like a novel. In face, the process is identical, as I assume it is for every creative work. Crafting a building is, after all, a creative project.
I’m eleven working days in on this project, and as events transpire which bring me closer to completion, and to winter, a moment of reflection is called for.
If you know the way broadly, you will see it in everything.
Building a house is often considered a work of labor, of blood, sweat, and tears (in a very literal sense) poured as part of the foundation. It is with this understanding of the current housing market that we have lost a part of ourselves. And it isn’t the first time in history this has happened.
The peasant classes of the dark ages had their carpenters and builders, as did the romans, and every civilization dating back to antiquity. It is therefore rare to find a culture where construction of one’s own home was the norm. Even among native tribes of this area, I would assume that certain members of the tribes were specialized in construction techniques, leaving finishing work to members of the household. They erected lodges, some up to a hundred feet long, with timbers found in the wood, braced and bowed into half-rings, and framing running the length. This could be covered with just about anything, but grasses on most resembled thatching, another skill that could have been heavily specialized. With towns as large as 3000, it isn’t a far cry to assume that specialization would lead to their ability to construct quickly, as they were known to do, while allowing trades of farmers, warriors, and other talents to be diverse among members of the community.
The Ancient Egyptians employed surveyors.
In fact, the only places in history where home construction falls ubiquitously on the labor of the household seems to be in wandering or nomadic tribes. Aside from these groups, building one’s own house has never been the norm.
What of it? Humans forever carried a tendency to forget what a home was, and only specialized architects and builders viewed it as an art form. With modernity, code books, and standard materials, we see its decoration as the artistic expression, and the house as an empty box, a canvas to paint on, and nothing more.
Henry Thoreau describes a house differently. While a home constructed by carpenters is uniform to those around it, one constructed by the occupant reflects the personality of said occupant. In other words, the finished house isn’t the canvas, the dirt is. The finished home, walls, framing, sheathing, thatching, and shape are the work of art. Not the furniture.
I find myself somewhere in-between. But there is no doubt that ones own blood and sweat going into their creation, makes that creation a reflection of their soul. Even if they never touch a hammer, designing the project without the inhibitions of societal norms releases creative expression, and this mimics exactly the creative process.
Every novel starts with an outline. Yes, even the pantsers have one. An outline need not be a long and detailed report as a child would turn in while preparing their dissertation, but can be as simple as an idea, or as complex as a 10,000 word play-by-play of the plot. I’ve started novels and stories from both. I’m not going to argue about the pros and cons, but rather say that I consider it all an outline.
Just as the painter has their sketches, the sculptor their eye for making a creation from the rough shape of their starting material, a lapidary their thrift at preserving the most of the clear and vibrant material while shaping rough gems, so too the builder must have an idea for the shape of their creation. Funny enough, they call it a “plan.”
This plan is their outline. It’s the original idea or concept, the rough shaping of an idea for what the final product should look like. As my brother might tell you before writing a computer program, draw the final product in crayon to see what it should look like. Mine was simple, a box. While this is an efficient way to build, that efficiency and thrift isn’t simply a “smart” decision, but a reflection of who I am. I’ve bootstrapped every idea I’ve ever had, never looking for venture capital. And when I do go looking for contributions, it’s always been after the process of creation has started. That simple rectangular shape with it’s squatty 1:3 roof and needs-based foundation is me. It’s the foundation of everything I do.
The plan reflects a lack of concern for what other’s might think about it’s look. I’m a function over form kind of guy, and my home shows that side of my personality quite well. This is my outline. “A 24 by 16 foot box with low-sloped roof that I won’t fall from while constructing it, built upon a strong but minimalist frame, and designed to last long enough for me to build another. Maybe twenty years or so.”
Funny enough, the shabbin wasn’t expected to make it five winters, but still it stands, without a hint of decay anywhere. I suppose the “strong” aspect far outweighed my projected longevity.
The First Draft
The first draft of anything is shit.
att. to Ernest Hemingway
I can’t express how much novels and homes have in common during the construction process enough. Just as a story starts with a protagonist, a home starts with a builder or designer, which in my case is also the future homeowner. There are people out there who have constructed five or six homes, living in one while they construct the next, and then selling the previous to move in. The proceeds from the sale and put into the next build. If such was seen as art, this is the same work as the prolific author, constantly striving to make the next story better than the last, and learning everything they need along the way.
My first attempt was a horrible failure, an 80 square foot shabbin, visible to the right in the top image on this page still covered in the original house wrap. The roof wasn’t square, and thinking that I could live in it exclusively while working my property was presumptuous to say the least. But I learned, and constructed the next building project, the green pole barn in the background of the same image.
At each step, I learn a little more, I do a little more, and each building retains a purpose. The tiny shabbin will be used, probably for a storage shed at first, and then who knows. The barn for keeping larger equipment out of the weather while providing a little workshop. Next is my home, which I plan to live in full time. Perhaps I’m again being arrogant in my thinking, but until I fail, I’ll never know.
A house under construction can be divided into three distinct phases, which must be followed whether one is building a mud hut or a castle. Foundation, framing, and finishing.
For my cottage, the foundation is fifteen piers set onto concrete footings, upon which the floor joists and sub floor are laid. A foundation’s purpose is to support the rest of the house, so having it solid is essential.
Think of how this relates to the opening of a story. The main character is seen in full form, usually with a problem to solve. Who he is, what he wants, and what he is willing to do to get what he wants are crucial elements of the story that are delivered very early on, forming a solid footing upon which the rest of the novel depends. The protagonist needs to be the “right person for the job.” Without that, the story will crumble like the walls of a castle built upon a swamp.
Next is the framing. You might think of this as the plot. The skeletal frame of a house is constructed mostly with timbers. In the modern world, it’s made with “sticks” of two-inch width, braced and screwed together, and sits directly on the foundation. This is the world of the story. The setting, the place, the backdrop to which the events are attached. It’s the shape of how the story will unfold, and directly dependent on the main character.
Then there’s the finishing, the wall and roof sheathing, the electrical work, the plumbing, etc. This are the conclusion, the finished product. They wrap everything up, making the house “complete” rather than an empty shell.
During the construction process, things are going to go wrong. Even after the house is built, it might be realized that certain aspects of construction were overlooked. Often inspectors serve the role of “beta readers” at every part of the process. For me, they are knowledgeable acquaintances I’ve made.
Most importantly, once the essentials are in place, then the real work begins. While a certain aspect of this is the final “look” of the space, most of it is tedious editing. Trying and retrying. Moving cabinets or sinks this way or that slightly. Shimming a tub into place so that it’s sized perfectly for the walls surrounding it.
Without this work, the house doesn’t work, and neither does the story. Every draft is filled with plot holes, lack of description in some places with superfluous details in others, odd point-of-view shifts, plot derailments, and the like. Just like a house, the writer must work to exact the final product from the rough-out measurements made while drafting. Enrichment is added to the story, and everything is tied together more neatly. The shell begins to look like a house as insulation and drywall go up.
The Final Edit
Every nitty gritty detail is now considered. Every word questioned, every unnecessary sentence stricken from the record, every loose board snugged tight, no detail overlooked. Just as a writer may live in their story while pitching it to agents, the home is “livable” but not “done.” It is here that the home-run work is done. Most of all this is presentation. The essential elements are there, but any tiny amendment can further enrich the look and feel of the overall story.
Reflecting on my reflections
It goes back to the quote that I opened with. The creative process is found in anything constructed of one’s own abilities. Whether it’s a house, a deck, a playground for the kids, a painting, a musical score, or a novel, the same elements are there. Foundation, framing, and finishing. Edits and refinement. And most importantly of all, the soul of the creator is injected into the work through this process, not once but many times over.
I suppose I should toss in a quick update here. I’m three walls up, and my next working day is Sunday, which will be day 12. I plan to finish the walls, and start day 13 building roof rafters, which I already purchased. I tallied up everything spent so far on the construction, from rocks to concrete to a couple tools I needed to add to my collection, and I’m sitting at $5191 in USD for finished framing, sheathing, along with a coating of underlayment to protect the structure from the elements at the base layer. Estimated completion ~10k (compared to other homes I’ve researched online of similar size costing 30-40,000). As a funny anecdote, I once spent over $2000 on bathroom faucets! Don’t ask. It mostly depends on what you want, and how you want to do it.
Anyway, hoping you guys liked this. For me it’s back to the grind. I still have more writing to do tonight.