Editor’s note: This is the first in a series of blogs detailing the construction of a net-zero energy house in Point Roberts, Washington, by an owner/builder with relatively little building experience. You’ll find Matt Bath’s full blog, Saving Sustainably, here. If you want to follow project costs, you can keep an eye on a budget worksheet here.
Most people these days spend the vast majority of their incomes on housing, especially those who wish to live in a large metropolis with a short commute to work and endless options for friendship, entertainment, and cuisine.
These dwellings consume vast quantities of gas, electricity, and water, which only adds to their high price tags. The supplies of these resources are finite, and their exploitation tends to cause pollution and hardships for wildlife. Building a water- and energy-efficient home is the number one way a person can save a ton of money and help the environment all at the same time.
The problem is that building a house seems like an insurmountable task for the average person. It seems to take an entire army of trades to get the job done, with plumbers, electricians, roofers, framers, masons, and on and on and on. I am setting out to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.
I spent nine months acquiring some basic construction and design skills, and in the process I realized the dirty truth that the average house is not constructed very well. The entire industry focuses on getting the job done as quickly as possible and using paint and drywall to cover up a lack of attention to detail. Just think about it: Every contractor out there is paid by the job rather than by the hour. That encourages them to cut as many corners as they can.
Since the majority of problems with houses aren’t discovered until several years after their completion, it has become relatively easy for them to get away with shoddy work. The drywall crew and painters come by and cover it all up, and homeowners wonder why their heating and cooling bills are so high, why it is so easy for insects to move in with them, and why they can hear and smell everything from the next block over.
The answer is simple. If you peel back the paint and drywall from the average home, you will find a house that is more Swiss cheese than an impenetrable, protective haven. The workmanship is so bad in many cases that I’m willing to bet that anyone willing to invest their time in attention to detail can do a better job. What’s more, you can do it far cheaper, and you can customize your new home as much as you want.
I am an unlicensed beginner. My website is meant to be a resource, not an instruction manual. I volunteered several months of my time to acquire some basic safety, design, and construction skills, and I’d strongly advise anyone looking to build their own home to do likewise. Keep in mind that building codes vary from country to country, state to state, and even county to county. The laws that pertain to the construction of my home may vary substantially from the laws that pertain to you.
My plan is to spend less than $200,000 to complete the project, including tools, truck and trailer.
Buying the land
Where are you going to build your dream home? For me, it was important to find affordable land near a large city. Luckily for me, I was able to find the perfect spot: an affordable, reasonably sized plot near the beach just a half-hour away from one of my favorite cities in the entire world.
I began by making a list of my priorities. I will be building solo, so it was important to have a large city nearby where I could balance my building time with social time. I needed access to basic utilities. To cut out engineering costs, I needed a plot without steep slopes, with decent load-bearing soil. On my wish list was a view and proximity to a beach.
The optimal location became quite apparent when my brother told me about a geographic anomaly by the name of Point Roberts. A quick drive from downtown Vancouver, British Columbia, and just a few hundred feet from its million-dollar, overpriced southern suburbs is a small peninsula south of the 49th parallel that marks the border between Washington State and British Columbia. Home prices below this invisible line are a fraction of the cost of similarly sized homes on the Canadian side, mostly due to a lack of jobs and high schools in Point Roberts. Thanks to help from this website I have no need for a job, and it will be at least 20 years before any future children of mine are in need of a high school education.
Point Roberts had a limited number of lots available, and after sifting through what was available I chose the one that was most accessible. Key factors you might want to consider when choosing a lot include zoning regulations, availability of utilities, whether you’ll have to pay dues to a homeowners’ association, site characteristics, and whether building and/or impact fees will be required for construction.
Preparing the site
Site prep will certainly vary widely, but it basically involves getting all of the services you’ll need during construction. I will be living on my lot at the same time as I am building, so I’m going to need more services to start than someone who has a home away from their lot. In addition, there may be some steps the county requires you to complete before you can even apply for a building permit. All of this information can be found at the county building office or on its website.
While I was lucky enough to find a lot that already had a water meter, I still needed to install a septic system (no sewer connection available), temporary power, internet access, and a temporary dwelling to use for the duration of the build.
For the septic system, the county requires a licensed engineer to complete the design, but it allows the homeowner to complete the installation. That will give me yet another chance to “Save Sustainably” by installing my own system. As part of my nine-month training, I learned how to use a CAD program called Rhinoceros and used it to design the house. I also used it to create a rough on-site sewage (OSS) design.
I started by researching the local health code. Next, I plotted out the property lines on Rhino. Using the required setbacks, I was able to map out possible locations for the drain field and reserve field. One of the few downsides to the lot I chose is there’s very little legal room to place these fields. My lot measures 16,360 square foot, but only 3,000 square feet was available for a drain field. When all the legal setbacks were taken into account, there was really only one place that the drain field and reserve field could be placed without having to invest a lot of money in an advanced system.
Today, the septic designer came out to do a percolation test and survey the lot. My design is useless without his stamp of approval. He should have the approved design ready in just a couple days, and then the county health inspector will come by and approve it as well. After that, I will be free to start installing it! The process is relatively simple and will involve digging one hole for the septic tank, a second shallower one for the drain field, and trenches for the pipes that will run between them. After that I will drop the tank in and hook up all the piping.
I will be using a pressurized distribution type of system so I also will need to run a power line out near the tank to power a pump. This will need its own separate breaker as well.
A county biologist will visit my lot sometime in the near future and assess what kind of an impact my building will have on plants and wildlife. He can decide to give it the green light or he can tell me I will have to make some changes in order to get the project approved. Obviously I am hoping for the former!