How to Build in a Recession: #2

One of our important human rights is the right to roll up our sleeves (bare our arms!) and build or remodel our own homes. Banks, insurance companies and building codes are chipping away at that right, but in most of the country there remains enough latitude for people to find a way to get involved, save a bundle of money, and ensure a better, more personalized place to live.

There are lots of ways for people to participate effectively in the construction of their own homes and I happen to have first-hand, hard-won experience with most of them, starting with:

Big Need, No Money
(Where existence is far more important than perfection)

When my wife and I bought our land, it was a deal we couldn’t refuse. The land was a beautiful piece on a remote dirt road without electricity, and therefore was very inexpensive. In addition, it was financed by the owner, which was critical because no responsible bank (This was back in the old days, when banks were careful and actually held the loans they made.) would have looked favorably on our tenuous, mostly broke, financial situation. Even with the low cost, a good interest rate and a lenient lender, making the payments on the land was all we could afford and precluded paying rent elsewhere.

Without good alternatives, we camped on the land and made plans to build. Youthful idealism, ignorance and physical vigor turned out to be a powerful antidote to our lack of money. I didn’t know very much about what was realistic or practical and therefore just dreamed big.

I decided that we not only needed a place to live, but I also needed a woodworking shop and garage to broaden my work possibilities and give me a way to continue working through the long New Hampshire winters. The phased plan thus unfolded this way:

1. Next 2 months: 14’ x 28 ft. barn/cabin for temporary living quarters
2. Next 12 months: 30’ x 70 ft. woodworking shop and garage
3. Next 24 months: Big, fancy house in which to live happily ever after

With little income and no possibility for a bank loan, I got started by doing the tasks I could that had little or no cost associated with them. Of course, I couldn’t do anything without building materials and I also I couldn’t buy them, so the alternative was to salvage materials from derelict buildings and scrounge whatever I could find from other sources.

As I traveled the area, I first mentally inventoried the unused barns, silos and outbuildings and eventually approached the owners of the best ones to see if they might be interested in demolition and removal in exchange for usable materials. I could have done demolition and deconstruction full time. Within a few days and about a dozen inquiries, I had more buildings to take apart than I could accomplish in the time I had. It turns out that New Englanders don’t like wasting things and they don’t like paying taxes, especially on assets they don’t use. Many owners readily accepted my no-cost solution to both problems. I found my construction manna in buildings that leaned, sagged or had holes in the roof. If the situation looked bad, my possibilities were good.

With the help of my brother and a friend, we did the deconstruction work between paying jobs, in the evenings, and on weekends. Before long, we had taken apart several small buildings and were putting up impressive piles of cleaned and sorted timbers and boards. Barn deconstruction is a lot of work, but the materials are often very good and usually have good character. My new buildings would instantly have a historical patina, with the various blemishes and weathering telling part of their story. Each piece was earned with sweat and perseverance and was precious beyond anything I might have purchased with money.

The most labor-efficient salvage came from wooden silos. They are made of vertical 2” x 6” tongue-and-groove staves held together like barrels, with external iron hoops providing compressive pressure to clasp them together to form big cylinders. I discovered I could just topple them by hooking a cable to one of the top hoops and then pulling the cable with my pickup truck. When collapsed, the staves would crumple into a loose heap, mostly free of attachments to each other and the hoops. Within ½ hour, we were piling up good, clean lumber that could be used either for decking or framing. Pulled-out straight, the hoops made good concrete reinforcing bar and cut into short lengths, they could be used like huge nails to hold timbers together.

It wasn’t long before I had enough framing and sheathing lumber to build the cabin and was already well into assembling a kit of materials for the woodworking shop. Since we desperately needed shelter before winter, I needed to focus my attention on the cabin. I paused on the demolition projects in order to find the rest of the materials and deal with a few infrastructure issues, which resulted in more sweat equity and some good scrounges.

• Foundation: piers of dry-laid stone.
• Windows: fixed sash found at dump
• Door: made from barn board and silo staves
• Roof shingles: free pine sawmill slabs cut into 24 in. lengths
• Insulation: factory seconds from Styrofoam manufacturer
• Well: clean and revive old hand dug well on property
• Bathroom: two-holer
• Heat: used woodstove

Without regard for precision, the cabin went up quickly. It was designed around the materials I had and most of the cutting was done with a chain saw since there wasn’t any electrical power on the property at the time. It didn’t make sense to be overly fussy anyway because it was intended to be used for living quarters only temporarily and then converted into a barn.

We moved in with full ownership after spending under $500. I had a full investment of personal labor hours and some debts to the family members and friends who helped, but otherwise we were well-positioned to ride out our personal recession in relative comfort.

As it turned out, we stayed there for 8 years, holding out until the birth of our second daughter forced us to build a larger home. During the time we were there, we upgraded nearly everything and added a bathroom wing. When we left, another couple moved in and stayed even longer and made even more improvements. They also had two daughters during their years there and finally built a beautiful new home down the road.

A few other people lived in the cabin for short periods and then my daughter and her husband lived there up until recently. They improved the heating system, fixed the roof, and built an even better bathroom. My grandson lived there for the first two years of his life.

Cabin

After 37 years, the “temporary” cabin has become revered and nearly sacred in our family. It is now empty for the first time, but waiting for the next adventure.

Lessons from the cabin about life:

• No home mortgage payments meant I could do what I wanted to do, not what I had to do. The path we chose would not have been possible if we were in debt. My company wouldn’t exist today if I had needed to be profitable in the first 5 years.
• Idealism and apparent ignorance sometimes can be forces for good. Resignation and cynicism are useless.
• In modern lifestyle assumptions, comfort can cost you your life and therefore is way overrated. The comforts of home aren’t comforts if you can’t afford them.
• If you have no work, you can still earn the things you need.
• Friends and family are your strength and hope.

Lessons from the cabin about building:

• Lots of free materials are available, but you have to go get them. There are just as many abandoned buildings now as there were 35 years ago.
• First assemble the kit of parts, and then design the building around what you have.
• On little money, the point is not to finish, but to make continual progress. All improvements are paid for in cash or sweat equity. It’s the rule of low-budget building.
• A decent place to live doesn’t mean a fancy place to live. Good workmanship in this type of dwelling means sturdy first, getting the job done second, and being fussy about the details third. Two out of three is sufficient.

When the cabin was done, I went about building the woodworking shop in exactly the same way. It was a much bigger building, but the challenge of that was somehow exciting more than daunting. We took down a very large barn and also recovered some salvage from a railroad trestle. I was able to trade some of the beautifully weathered barn boards for new boards and went about my scrounging until I had gathered all the materials needed for the building.

• Used windows given by a neighbor when their home was renovated
• Metal roofing salvaged from a covered bridge when it got a new roof
• Pilings salvaged from old telephone poles
• Concrete slab filled with a large quantity of stone to displace concrete volume and reinforced with silo hoops and assorted junk metal.
• Wooden deck: timbers and silo staves
• Structure: barn and bridge timbers
• Insulation: Styrofoam slab seconds
• Labor help: friends and family
• Heat: wood furnace salvaged from an old house; owner had upgraded to an oil furnace

When the building was enclosed, my business moved in. We owned it, having no debt to anyone other than the amount remaining for the land. It was in that building that we developed the ideas and methods to make timberframing a practical way to build again. Without any financial pressures, we could focus on doing things right and getting good results. Making money came later.

The Alstead Shop

Thirty-five years later, the shop is a thriving facility. It grew and expanded several times over the years until we had over 45 people employed in our timberframe operation and overwhelmed that dirt road location. Today, it is once again our woodworking shop and is humming with activity and continues to be the scene of great craftsmanship, remarkable creativity and inspiring energy.

The current recession is nothing compared to my personal recession in those early years.
Now, as then, nearly anything can be accomplished with work and perseverance.

Now, as then, lack of money isn’t necessarily a reason to not to pursue one’s dreams. It may, in fact, become the very reason you can make them real.

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