Ever Designed [and built] Your Own House?


Just wondering if there are any here who have got around to designing and constructing a house for themselves and/or their family. I never have, but am planning to in the next 12 months.

The prevailing idea [stereotype?] about this is that its a design nightmare as one tries to incorporate every idea you have ever had into a practical solution with usually a very limited budget...

If you've done it, how did it go? Any regrets? Do you look at a detail of the house with remorse? Did you ever get it finished?

Any takers?

Jun 3, 04 9:58 pm

I am currently working for an architect who is designing and building his own house. This is the reason we (America) has three branches of government. Being the architect, client and builder at the same time doesn't seem to be the most efficent way to get things done; there are no checks and balances.

If you really want to build your own home, I suggest that you have a design and stick to it. It is very easy to take your time and changes things on a whim because you can, but this will cost you in the end.

Also, if you are not too highly skilled in construction, the extra time that you may spend constructing the house may cost more than having a contractor do the work. (if you can bill yourself out at $50 an hour doing design work for a client, you will be paying yourself $50 an hour to drive nails)

Jun 3, 04 11:12 pm

I did the whole design build house thing several years ago and while it was painful at times, the benefits outweigh the negatives. I disagree with the above post regarding paying yourself - if you are like most young architects and doing the 9-5 grind, you build your home during your free time and noone is paying you for that time.
One great thing- the work I do is not residential so this house building effort became educational in wood framing design and techniques

try to understand early on what you and your friends or familyare capable of and sub the rest-- we (mostly my dad and myself and a few friends) did it all but the rough framing, roofing and AC (including digging the foundation) - we knew how to do the rest so it was just time and sweat. We also knew how to shingle but felt we could save 2 weeks by hiring a crew- and save our necks from not falling off.

don't overwork yourself- our avg. was 2 nights/week and weekends- any more and you cant function at your job or the house- pacing yourself over the several months is essential

only design what you can build or pay someone to build- I broke my heart a few times by not being able to pay for some of my design ideas but had to rationalize that this was a small starter home- you can't do every design idea so cull the weak and concentrate on the strong ideas

Have an understanding boss- the occasional call during work is essential to keeping the subs on target- they will never show up for afterwork or weekend meetings

have an understanding bank- you will probably be doing things out of sequence and havecost priorities other than spec-builders- make sure the bank knows the $3500 sub-zero frig is critical for you and that you are happy with stained concrete floors in the den that they think are unfinished /ugly remember, eventually you have to sell it so dont make it unmarketable

phase it-we did 2 stories and didnt finish the 2nd floor for 3 years- makes it quicker to get in and save more money-downside-living in a construction site

all of the sweat equity will double for you when you sell- it almost killed me but we sold my creation last year because we needed a bigger place but we doubled what we spent - it was rough, imagine throwing away that perfectmodel or sculpture from school that you spent weeks on and multiply it by 100- I still irrationally resent the people who bought it from me

finally, be brave, ask for help, and good luck and have some fun with it

Jun 4, 04 12:06 am

Great advice NOLarch,

At this stage, I will be designing it myself, and at least operating as the owner builder in a contractural sense, but we have recently had a child and so will have to compromise on time v. budget and perhaps get it built by pro's - hopefully at mates rates because we have a few builders in the family. I'm assuming a temporary construction site is not the best place to raise a 1-2 year old...

I guess my approach design-wise will be to adhere strictly to budget and council regulations on height, area etc. Perhaps use it as a model for low-budget, yet functional houseing - you know, the modernist dream...

Jun 4, 04 5:33 am

I did a house project when i was in school.
for the project I decided to use the spaces from my dreams..i kept a sketch book by my bed. All my drawings were done in watercolor and wax models.
it was surprising that the literal representation of my dream spaces were far more creative than anything I could logically think of while awake.

Jun 4, 04 4:35 pm

I am working on the my second home. The first was more of a renovation / boob job. I lived in it and sent my family away for a six week holiday over the summer. Very stressful as I also had my office in the house at the time.

It wasn't my forst experience as a builder/ designer so I knew what to expect but the costing component got way out of hand for what I was expecting but in hind sight still very reasonable if I had to get some one else to build it. I was on the carpenter's ass all day long.

I certainly drove the schedule and it was great. I am now been designing a new home for two years, mostly in my free time (what ever that is ) but I have looked at everything I ever wanted to do, I am on my third set of construction docs. but its just paper, very happy as the thing gets better each retiteration. In the end I will have to balance budget and plan to not over design the thing so I have ahuge morgage ( I want to not have a morgage at the end) so priorities are set and my kids have had their input and hopefully it will satisfy my willingness to be a bit edgey and be the talk of the street but be smart and "do the right thing" it takes time but going and taking the time really is the greatest luxury then at least i know I had a chance to try out all my ideas and decide on my own terms what works and what dosen't. I have also had a chance to test somethings I never would be able to get my clients to do.

Jun 4, 04 6:05 pm

My parent's house.

Halted the project near the end to start all over from scratch.

Jun 4, 04 7:22 pm

Currently working on my parent's house. To begin construction in August. Definitely working with parent's or family members is have to keep a little distance between the work and your pure beliefs. it's definitely a difficult exercise, but has been a great learning experience as well. my parent's are fairly progressive (more so than i would have ever expected) and have really been open to new concepts of building, living, etc...than what they are used to. i'm really glad i took them to a show of aalto's work at the moma a few years ago. it gave them confidence that clean, ,modern spaces could also be comfortable. we've got a really knowledgable confident contractor on board and will be doing a lot of interior finish work ourselves. we've bought a lot of doors, and exterior downlights from a cool 50's house in the area....the most difficult part has been keeping truthful to a very lean budget ($85/sq. ft.) while still aspiring to do real design (having a concept, creating open space...moments of luxury, etc.)
biggest lessons learned: do a pricing set very early on and have it priced by outside parties (i.e. local contractors). carelfully listen to stated aims and intentions by your parents, don't dismiss suggestions or think your ideas are always better for will come back to bite you. when in doubt do more product/systems research than less...but don't draw everything. imply and talk through conditions with the contractor first and use drawings to clarify complex issues/situations or situations that must be built to a higher level of precision than normal....
good luck out there.

Jun 5, 04 2:14 pm
on my way

I just finished building a small (220sqft) guest house for my girlfriend's parents. I designed and built the whole thing myself (had a friend come for two days to help me put up the sheetrock). I framed everything, sheathed, metal siding, custom built the windows, everything... I had no previous construction experience, so I pretty much figured it out as I went along. The total budget was $4,000, which is pretty amazing considering the finished product - however, I reused an existing concrete foundation and didn't have to do any plumbing...

I totally recommend the experience. It makes a huge difference when you actually have to do the work yourself. It helps you understand how things really go together and why construction workers are always bitching about the crazy stuff architects think up...

I'll post some current pictures soon, but until then, here is the link to some in-progress photos:

In terms of what I learned... the main thing is that I probably wouldn't build something myself again without help. If I was going to build a whole house, I'd definitely get a few experienced builders to help me. I wouldn't hire a contractor, but I'd hire some guys who really know what they're doing because they'd be able to make things happen a lot faster. The best part about it is that now I know exactly what's going on and I wouldn't put up with any bullshit. I'm sure I could keep the costs down significantly because I know how long it takes and how much materials cost...

Oh - one more thing: I concur with the other posters in terms of being careful with the time... I was working 1/2 - 3/4 time while building this and it took me several months to finish. It always takes way longer than you think... and every time you forget to buy something or run out of nails you have to spend an hour driving to home depot... 2 hours if it's on a on a weekend and HD is absolutely packed or during rush hour and the highways are clogged...

Jun 6, 04 4:01 pm


Jun 6, 04 4:52 pm

I have now designed and built (acting as general contractor, laborer, clean up person, tile setter, painter, sheet metal flashing installer, minor carpentry/framing, minor trim carpentry) 2 houses for my family: one in Arizona, one in Virginia. Can't afford to do it here in Colorado now.
First lesson: it always costs more than you think it will, so build in a healthy contingency.
Second lesson: it always takes longer, so plan on making those construction loan interest only payments for a few more months than you think you will.
Third lesson: it will wear you out. I would be at the site for a few hours before work in the morning, sometimes digging ditches for the plumber, sometimes explaining things to the framers or masons, sometimes loading and hauling trash, whatever...then I would shower and head to the office...stop at the house to change after work, say hi to the family, and head up to the site to work for 2-5 hours at night sometimes....laying tile floors, painting, hanging doors, etc.
Fourth lesson: you never finish until you move/sell it. You get it done enough to move in and get a CO....and are always doing something later.
Over all, it was great though. My wife wants me to do it again, but financially I can't right now. Maybe some day. She much prefers the homes I designed to accommodate her desires, and they were great places to live. I also profited nicely when it came to selling them.

Jun 10, 04 5:35 pm

all that time and u sold it?
so you built a home that you loved and now live in someone elses design?
I think it is fantastic that you built your own house, that is a dream of mine that may never be realized but i can understand the resentment of those that now live there. I'd drive by day and night to make sure they didn't do something stupid like carpet the floors or redo the rooms in with stupid trading spaces inspired design.
I will forever feel this pain that you carry forth.

Jun 10, 04 5:55 pm


It hurt when we put it on the market, it hurt when we accepted the offer, I almost cried the day of the closing and many months later, it still hurts when I think about it- I drive by from time to time to check it out but havent summuned the nerve/courage to knock on the front door to ask to see what changes they have made.

I knew when I built it that it was a "starter" home and when we had kids that we move eventually, I just had no idea about the emotional attachment but I assume thats natural. I am planning on building an addition to our new place that will make it more "ours" and have a plan to build my dream home in another 10 years when I (hopefully) will have the finances to build what I design.

thansk for your concern


Jun 11, 04 9:45 am

i am also working on my father's home. it's been a long time designing that one. because everytime i do something and he will do some changes. it's a very tough jog to design your perent's home, because for them you are not only an architect but their beloved also. so sometimes u have to be very careful also b'coz they will believe u so much that all the responsibility will come on u, weather it is cost,design,workmenship, etc. so the gu nis on ur shoulder only. i would suggest to bevery carefull about whatever u design, it should be constructable, cost effective, must fulfill the requirements of ur perents.

at same time such works give u very good practical knowledge, because in such projects u yourself are architect, contractor, engineer,etc. so it will give the all round progress as an architect.

as i m design my own, i would like to recieve some good guidlines from u all. as the area of the site is 5400 sqft. which is located in a suburban indian area. should be designed for 5 occupants including an architect and an interior designer.

Jun 15, 04 3:47 am

I'm also starting with a design for my parents, it's a cottage in the finnish archipelago and I'm sketching something like a cross between a greek temple and price-style shingle house. Yep, pomo finally reached these shores!

Jun 15, 04 5:41 am
David Cuthbert

NoLArch - any photos of the house - it seems like a labour of love and treasured endeavour just wanted to put a face to a story

Jun 15, 04 11:21 am
David Cuthbert

on my way - just wondering where are you from that chain of islands on your site look very familar (I'm currently working in the Caribbean)

Jun 15, 04 11:22 am
on my way


I'm from Portland, but live in New York... You're right in recognizing those islands... I was down in the virgin islands on a yacht for a couple of weeks. Those photos are from St. Thomas...

I'm looking forward to seeing The Rum Diary when it finally comes out so I can relive a little bit of the Caribbean lifestyle...

When I was down there, I was curious what property rates were like. Is there anywhere in the Caribbean that's reasonable?

Jun 15, 04 12:12 pm

on my way- i really enjoyed the photos of the project you linked to. You have a nice project there and I look forward to seeing the final results. A quick question, what is the manufacturer/model of the exterior metal siding? -thanks in advance.

Jun 16, 04 3:27 pm

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