|Students of the Rocky Mountain Workshop|
“[I was] already interested in building a house for myself with good construction techniques and a very open feeling [and] I realised that Shelter Institute could give me the knowledge to either contract out or take on whatever portion of the work I wanted,” recalls Biehler, who is based in Germany. “A few summers later, I took their three-week post-and-beam course.”
Enchanted by the school’s surroundings, he bought a nearby plot of land, where he erected a pre-cut 20ft by 40ft post-and-beam structure, which he finished himself, while calling in professionals for wiring and plumbing. Within three summers he had a completed vacation house, garden shed and boat house. And now, after getting “invigorated” by his summer 2008 school project – a frame cabin – he has started work on a year-round retirement home.
Biehler’s new hobby is known as self-building, or owner-building, and covers a range of do-it-yourself approaches; managing tradesmen as a general contractor, hammering alongside the professionals or going the whole hog, from site-acquisition and blueprints to screwing in the last light-bulb. And in today’s economic climate, with unemployment rising and household budgets shrinking, there would seem no better time for the trend to catch on.
Even when done with help, owner-building saves on architect and construction fees (as well as property transaction taxes in places such as the UK), while also usefully occupying days once spent in an office. It offers more design flexibility and custom choices too, to say nothing of awakening atavistic shelter instincts.
According to the UK’s National Self Build Association, the phenomenon appears to be most common in European locales. In Austria, 80 per cent of new homes are built independently, with at least some contribution from their owners, rather than by developers and, in Scandinavia, the proportion is 50-60 per cent. Australia also has a high self-building rate at 45 per cent of new residences, as does the US at 30 per cent. French mayors’ offices regularly purchase lots for families to build on and, in Germany, the new 38-hectare town of Vauban, near Freiburg, will include 2,000 sites earmarked for self-builders working in small groups or individually to put up homes.
According to Buildstore, a UK-based company with a National Self Build Centre in Swindon, western England, which provides research, advice, courses and supplies, serious self-building projects are also on the rise in the UK, with tax reclaim receipts for materials showing the number has climbed from 2,000 per year in the 1970s to 18,000 per year today, or about 10 per cent of new homes. The typical British self-build is 2,300 sq ft (twice the average UK property size) with two storeys, four bedrooms, two bathrooms and a garage.
Regardless of their skills, any weekend carpenters and armchair architects wanting to take on such a project are advised to get formal instruction. And, perhaps not surprisingly, it is in the US – where self-improvement is a national pastime and the independent, single-family home deemed a fundamental right – that schools with the most comprehensive courses can be found.
|One of Jon Biehler‘s construction projects|
The Shelter Institute, located on a 68-acre wooded site on the Atlantic coast, was launched in 1974 by Pat Hennin, a lawyer-turned-builder. He has since been joined by his son, Gaius, a civil engineer who describes himself as the school’s “number cruncher”, and his daughter, Blueberry, a skilled builder who is gifted at reassuring “men afraid of asking dumb questions”. According to Gaius, Hennin senior is still the chief motivator, “persistent about getting an individual to do what’s needed”. His advice for those trying to understand roofing and siding? “Think like a raindrop.”
The Hennins’ curriculum concentrates on traditional American timber framing but because they view the house as a sum of systems – cover, insulation, power, water – it transfers easily to other countries. Ten-day to three-week courses, priced from about $1,000, combine classroom work, such as sessions on brick- and stone-laying techniques, with practical experience, including building a small timber-frame structure. The experience “really left me with a ‘can do’ attitude,” Biehler says, “and gave me a working knowledge of most areas of the building process, which helped in dealing with subcontractors”.
It’s no wonder he also fell in love with Maine, since the Shelter Institute is surrounded by some of the US’s best beaches, sailing and famous lobster stands. Students may camp nearby – arriving at class in kayaks – but Biehler stayed in a traditional New England bed and breakfast. (Hennin says the eight hours per day of course work are intense enough without everyone living together.)
A few hours away, at Yestermorrow in Vermont, the atmosphere is more camp-like, with students working, eating and sleeping side by side. The school is the legacy and “promotional” organ of the US design-build movement, which began in the 1960s when two Yale-educated architects, David Sellers and Bill Rienecke, founded an architecture-focused community near the Sugarbush ski resort. Prickly Mountain became known for its eccentric houses and – at the time – radical ideas about sustainability and architect-builder relationships and later inspired a younger generation of architects, including the group known as the Jersey Devils, a member of which, Steve Badanes, teaches at Yestermorrow.
The school’s design focus and links to world-class academics and practitioners are its strengths. During two-week courses such as “Designing for Beauty and Sustainability”, costing about $1,700, outside lecturers, often from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, lead architecture-school style critiques of student projects.
Vijay Kochar, a retired Intel marketing executive planning his own house, says the professional instruction and an “environment where everyone leans over your shoulder” ensured that his course “exceeded” his expectations. Fears that it would be limited to “American two-by-four” wood construction were unfounded since there was ample exposure to other materials, such as straw bale and concrete, as well as shorter, two- and five-day workshops on practical skills, such as wiring and insulation.
Kochar worked on his project for 10-12 hours per day, took field trips to sites illustrating the principles learned in class, ate staff-prepared food from the school gardens and stayed in accommodation that was equal parts hippie commune, motel and college dormitory. The group from each residential session designs and builds a structure for the local community, staying up “until 2am” some nights, he says; one example is the funky, shell-shaped bus shelter located alongside a nearby highway.
|A student from Yestermorrow|
As at the Shelter Institute, the focus is mainly on wood framing. But where the Hennins offer a broad overview of general construction, Haney leads students deep into the complexities of compound joinery and timber engineering and gives practical instruction using only hand tools, including a 120-year-old boring machine. Professionals seeking freedom from modern machinery and the pleasure of “working while chatting over the tap of chisels and hand saws” choose his square-rule timber-framing classes (using a rule and a carpenter’s square) and he says those enrolling in his most “fascinating but difficult classes” should have some prior knowledge of trigonometry, drafting or carpentry. Six days of instruction costs $680.
All three schools attract a range of students, aged from 17 to 70, evenly divided between men and women (though men predominate in the technical joinery classes and women in the design ones). There are singles, couples and parent/child teams. Haney says his typical students are “middle-aged guys who sit at computers” but last summer he also taught a retired fire-fighter and an Alaskan gold miner. Among the others at Yestermorrow that season were a journalist and an architecture student.
Self-builders’ goals are as varied as their backgrounds. Some want to build a simple backyard retreat; others an off-grid eco-cabin; others an idiosyncratic dream home. But all share a desire to participate directly in their projects’ design and construction, to get their hands dirty. Many get poetic when discussing their newly acquired skills and their pet projects. They talk almost religiously about what it means to create their own shelter, discover traditional trades and work outdoors. “A home is mystic, more than just four walls,” Kochar says. “It’s the embodiment of a personality.”
As he, Biehler and many others have discovered, taking a self-building course not only improves your project’s bottom line. It can improve your life too.