Monthly Archives: May 2009

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.


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.

How to Build in a Recession: #1

Unwarranted and irrational optimism is one our most powerful tools. Hope and striving, despite the steadfast gravitational force calling for resignation and stasis, is the fuel of human progress. The New York Times ran a story the other day, entitled “What Happens to the American Dream in a Recession?” Sure enough; buoyed on warm wafts of denial, hard times only seem to bring our dreams into sharper focus. No matter the depth of economic difficulties, it’s apparent that we cling to the idea that anything is possible for those who are willing to work for it.

Despite half a million job losses a month, despite dismal forecasts for the future, despite so many people having lost most of their savings or worse, the dreams remain. No doubt, every dream is different and all dreams are adjustable, but it is still remarkable under the circumstances. Perhaps it’s how we survive life’s challenges: just rescale the dream in light of the setbacks and move on. How can a paraplegic get motivated to compete in athletics? How can a person in prison for the remainder of his days “love the breath of life?” How does a single mother with four children, who can’t make ends meet with only one job, find it important to “count my blessings?” Whatever the reason, it’s the best of humanity revealed, again and again.

In these hard times, the hopes and dreams of millions of Americans are becoming sparer, more essential, and therefore less trivial. Basic ideals like freedom, equality and peace are championed again, as are basic needs like good food and reliable shelter. It may take this kind of shaking up to remind us of what’s really important and what’s really needed. No doubt, one of those essential things is the critical role that housing plays in the lives of all people. It came up when the NYT/CBS survey asked people what the American Dream means to them.

“Basically, have a roof over your head and put food on the table.”
“Working at a secure job, being able to have a home and live as happily as you can not spending too much money.”
Owning own home, having civil liberties.”

As some of the gaudy bubble-induced ambitions get pared back, a decent and comfortable place to live always remains an elemental basis for achieving an improvement in the quality of life. Sturdy homes are at the root of civilization. Freedom and democracy mean nothing to people who lack the security of dependable, dignified shelter.

In light of how important home is in the lives of everyone, it’s unfortunate that homeowners have become removed from the homebuilding process. For most of history, people had to know how to make and maintain their homes. Along with hunting, farming and cooking, the essential skills of homebuilding were critical to the process of creating a sustainable lifestyle. In the 20th century, though, Americans unlearned building knowledge and skills and instead, ceded the idea of outsourcing the entire making of their most important physical asset to “professionals.”

Meanwhile, and ironically, the homebuilding industry used the same century to unlearn their integrated skills and also developed a process dependent on outsourcing an ever-growing number of discreet tasks to teams of specialists. The result is that would-be homeowners have put themselves at the mercy of an industry that is itself at the mercy of a fragmentation and disintegration that has made the homebuilding process too hard, too expensive and wholly bad. Homebuilding is a team sport with no coach, no training, no practice; no team. The average jobsite morale, organization, focus and sport proficiency would appall the average Pop Warner Peewee league coach.

This deep recession also reveals numerous opportunities and one of the big ones is for homeowners to take back homebuilding. In reaction to the economy, there has been a tremendous resurgence in backyard gardening and home-cooked meals. Many are doing this because they are forced to, but they also recognize the rare opportunity to save money and improve quality at the same time. The same is possible in homebuilding. Owner-builders can save a lot of money, and also ensure a better product, with much more customization to personal taste and needs.

The need for good quality homes, critical maintenance and important renovations is almost certainly greater than ever, as we’ve seen record low levels of building activity for nearly a year. Of course, there’s a big inventory of relatively inexpensive housing stock on the market, but most of it is junk. So what if the price of a McDonald’s hamburger is on sale for a dollar? It’s still only a McDonald’s hamburger. If you want a really good quality, affordable meal, you’ll have to cook it.

And if you want a high quality home you can afford, you may just have to roll up your sleeves and build it.

A Simpler Life

I am among those who believe that the current recession, while painful, is a necessary correction, one that will help lead toward a more sustainable culture, a stronger economy, and importantly, more contentment and happiness.

The foundation of the American experiment is dug deep in the hearts of its people. It is built on an indomitable work ethic, uncommon generosity and the collective pursuit of the common good. Its antithesis is indolence, personal indulgence and selfishness. The virtuous cycle of the former is the well-spring of our greatness, while the vicious cycle of the latter is a recipe for any civilization’s imminent ruin.

Our apparent willingness to trade our hard-won values for a quick road to the “high life” can now be recognized as the worst kind of “deal with the devil.” In the classic Faust legend, he was at least attempting to trade for knowledge; our bargain was only for money and stuff but just like Faust, we ended up losing things far more precious than what can be easily summed.

Of course, the temptation of an easier way has probably always lured people away from their core principles. The American character was hewn to shape in the making of a country. Somewhere, deep in our memory, is the passion and tenacity of the people, who created entire civilized communities out of raw wilderness; who cleared fields of stumps and stone; who built houses, barns, churches, meeting halls and whole towns with bare hands and mutual effort. In the process, they did more work in less time than it took slaves to build the Roman Empire. The intrigue of the American story is the nuanced mystery of what it is that brings about the best of humanity.

Still, the devolution of values has always been a constant possibility and real worry of leaders and wise men through the ages. What John Adams wrote to his brother-in-law at the turn of the 19th century would have been a timely warning for the beginning of the 21st century:

“I am no enemy to elegance, but I say no man has a right to think of elegance till he has secured substance; nor then, to seek more of it than he can afford.”

Later, in a letter to Thomas Jefferson in 1819, Adams sounded despairing, as if trends had not gone his way.

“Will you tell me how to prevent luxury from becoming effeminacy, intoxication, extravagance and folly?”

In a few short months, we’ve learned a lot about the link between “extravagance and folly.” The happy illusion that the lifestyle and amentities of your choice could be had without effort did, in fact, intoxicate enough people to cripple the economy when the bitter scheme of it unraveled. We therefore have sobering evidence that Adams’ admonition about living within one’s means and “substance before elegance” is the correct mantra for a better way of thinking, acting and living. It’s a more sustainable approach that is available and applicable at all levels, individually and collectively. Taken together, it’s a prescription for a simpler life; for less grasping for more, and more accepting of less.

Wealth, after all, is not a measurement of asset accumulation, but is instead only an irritating, artificial gap between what you have and what you want. This is how some people who have much become poor, and people with very little can become rich. Learning to satisfy one’s needs and desires with less money and effort is the surest and fastest route to real wealth.

There’s nothing new here. Sages and religious leaders have been banging this drum for ages. It’s just an old truth about how to best live that is now hitting us hard once again as we witness the brutal consequences of ignoring those timeless lessons. This time, I believe the correction will stick (at least for a generation or so) because the change is needed and shifting toward frugality and self-reliance actually comes pretty naturally. There is more of Thoreau than Trump in our collective psyche.

Frugality parallels humility in the same way that ostentation parallels conceit and narcissism. The simpler life makes elegance and wealth a choice instead of a purchase. It democratizes “the pursuit of happiness.”

This brings me back to my uncle Clyde, who I wrote about in my last blog. Clyde never made more than $16K/year, but he was never poor and never deprived. (When I was young, I thought he was rich because of the big tips he left at restaurants.) When he retired, the house he could afford was too small, so he became an owner-builder, took courses in plumbing and electrical work and, with the help of a friend from his Chicago church, built an addition to make the home more adequate to his needs. What he built wasn’t fancy or elegant, but it had substance. It had exactly the qualities that mattered to Clyde and his wife. He built it himself.

I think one of the very best things that could come out of this recession is people reconnecting with the process of homebuilding. Actually, it’s the “turnkey” alternative that’s pretty unnatural. Historically, people have usually had a bigger influence on the making of their “nest.” Given the cost and the compromises, it doesn’t always make sense to simply buy a home complete and entire unto itself without personal intervention at some part of the construction or finishing stages. Over the years, we have worked with many owner-builders and those are some of our finest homes and best experiences. Their personal involvement always makes things better, less expensive and much, much more personalized to their needs and desires.

In the coming years, I see a trend where people are going to be rightfully wary of big mortgages on big houses with lots of superficial glitz and little substance at the core. To get it done right, in a way they can afford, I think many more people will be willing to get involved and manage the process directly, build more incrementally, and control the quality completely.

Best reaction to a recession? Opt out; start building!