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Community and Q&A

Cost-Effective Approach to High-Performance Home Building

NICK KEENAN | Posted in Green Building Techniques on

Fairly regularly here we get questions from people looking to build their own home inexpensively, and often they’re drawn to less common building techniques. Just in the past month, for example, we’ve had discussions about pole buildings, shipping containers and straw bale construction. Rather than discussing particular techniques, I thought it would be interesting to have a thread about the general principles that make a build practical (or impractical). I’ll admit my bias is that conventional materials are conventional because they are cost-effective, and that design choices are the biggest variable in construction cost that can be controlled.

I’ll throw out three parameters for the discussion:

1. One goal is cost-effectiveness. Obviously that means different things to different people, but we’re talking modest housing.

2. Energy efficiency is important.

3. A recurring theme when people suggest non-conventional construction is they want to save money and participate in the project by doing some of the work themselves. So what are materials and techniques where a person of ordinary abilities can participate meaningfully?

I have some thoughts but I’ll share them in the comments. I look forward to everyone’s thoughts.

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  1. Expert Member
    NICK KEENAN | | #1

    My thoughts:
    1. For both energy efficiency and cost reasons you want the shape of the house to be close to a cube. That minimized exterior surface area, which minimized heat loss and construction cost.

    2. Notwithstanding point #1, span is expensive. To the extent you can minimize the span of rafters and joists do so, even if it means making the house rectangular rather than a perfect square. It's very common to see houses where the joists are 8', 12' or 16' stock sizes on each side of a beam or bearing wall, there's a reason it's common.

    3. Fluffy insulation -- batts or blow-in -- is the cheapest, you're better off making walls and ceilings thick and using lots of fluff than using more expensive insulation.

    4. Doors and windows are expensive and effect the energy performance a lot. Select your doors and windows first and design the rest of the house around them.

    5. Smaller is cheaper.

    1. pjpfeiff | | #53

      DC, can you expand on the 4th point? I'm not really following what it means to pick your doors and windows then design the house around them.

      1. Expert Member
        NICK KEENAN | | #54


        Doors and windows are expensive, but you can often get really good deals on surplus ones because they are big and heavy and hard to store, so if you have one you don't need you just want to get rid of it. Windows come in a gazillion sizes and the odds of someone needing a window in the size you happen to have is essentially zero. I can think of two places near me that sell new windows that were mis-ordered for pennies on the dollar.

        So when you're designing your house, get a rough idea of what kind of windows and doors you want to have. Then spend some time shopping outlet stores and Craigslist and potentially networking with other builders. You'll need to have a place to store windows and doors and a way to transport them.

        Once you've actually acquired the windows and doors adjust your plans to fit what you have.

  2. JC72 | | #2


    The less corners the better. Four corners obviously is ideal.

    Raised heel-truss roof.

    Going up for space is cheaper than going out.

    Batt insulation - Grade 1 DIY

    Air seal - DIY.

    Mesh type rain screen product.

    Professionally designed/installed electric HVAC system and if required ducts INSIDE the house.

    Casement windows

  3. gstan | | #3

    Here are a few examples of cost-effective from my life. Back about 1973 (newly married with our first child) we found an old cinder block building about 20 miles out of town (Durango, Colorado). One large room, no plumbing, no interior walls, and the semi functional electrical had been installed by an idiot. The front door had been burned in half and people had started dumping trash through the broken windows and all over the property. WE designed the interior layout ourselves, scrounged up used materials and spent the next five years living in a construction site while making a house out of it (while maintaining full time jobs). This was the period when the idea of super insulated houses first made its appearance, so we tried it. It was also the time when inflation really started to kick in (kinda like now). Boy did it pay off at the end!
    So, what was so cost effective? Doing it ourselves with used, scrounged materials and having no heat bills.
    This gave us the incentive (and the finances) to do it again. There is nothing more cost-effective than DIY, if you can summon up the energy. That said, here are some design ideas that seemed to really work for us over the next 25 years with two more houses (new builds this time). First double stud walls - second insulated shutters on all windows - third additional heavy insulation for water heaters.
    All of this can be done with conventional materials and building techniques. I think that double stud walls are generally only cost effective in climate zones 6 and above although you might be able to justify them in a really hot climate like Phoenix or Bullhead city. Insulated shutters are in a cost-effective class by themselves - they cost money to build but allow you to use much less expensive windows and eliminate drapes - you can easily achieve an R-value exceeding 8 at night even with cheap windows. The only downside is that you have to like the aesthetics. Wrapping the water heaters in fiberglass is a no-brainer. GOOD LUCK!

    1. nick_vk | | #60

      I'm curious about the insulated shutters. Did you make them, or use a commercial product? Were they interior or exterior? How are they operated?

      Given the dismal performance of even the best windows, I'm surprised more attention hasn't been put on developing thermal shutter systems, especially in climates with long, cold winters.

      1. jwolfe1 | | #61

        I have also wondered about shutters and curtains.

  4. Expert Member


    I'd say the most practical approach is an upgraded version of whatever the standard construction is in your area. Especially for those with little experience, building or overseeing the construction of a house is complex enough without adding uncommon methods or detailing.

    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #11

      I agree with you. All construction is highly cost-sensitive and local standards are standards for a reason. Maybe I shouldn't say the quiet part out loud, but my ulterior motive in starting this thread is so the next time someone comes along and wants to build a house using barrel staves or elephant grass or whatever we can point him to this thread.

      1. AC200 | | #21

        I used to live in Fairfax county where big (cheap per sqft) poorly built McMansions are the norm. Try to build good and smaller in Fairfax, Loudon or Montgomery and you shoot yourself in the head on resale. IMO, only hope is in NW, Alexandria and Arlington, even in McClean everyone wants big. It drove me crazy, I had to change my cheap wood double hung windows and install a heat pump after ten years because it was so breezy in the house and inefficient. Painters wanted to paint them without removing sashes. But I was not the norm, my neighbors didn't really care.

  5. albertoarriaga33 | | #5

    Windows: Fewer and larger windows is cheaper than more and smaller ones. Design windows to have higher proportion of fixed vs operable sections. Consider casement instead of tilt and turn.

    Building footprint: Keep the geometry simple, keep the roof a single shape, 4 corners ideally like others have mentioned. Not only will this be cost effective but it will make air sealing an easier job.

    Insulation: Blown ins or fluffy stuff.

    Use mini splits in large conditioning zones.

    Membranes: stay away from the expensive self adhered vapor closed stuff, use Proclima or similar (not inexpensive but very good value).

    Ventilation: Zehnder comfoflex distribution system is pretty cost effective and easy to install. Pair with a panasonic ERV for more savings (unless of course an HRV is required).

    Rain-screens: built with wood or plywood strips, no real need for expensive mesh products or corrugated strips.

    If you build a good, waterproof subroof, you can install a cheap corrugated metal roof (not sure about prices in other areas but down here in the tropics this is the most cost effective roof).

    This is pretty much how my company is able to reliably and cost effectively achieve at least Low Energy Building standards (we do hit PH levels of air tightness).

    1. sfortier | | #29

      Alberto, I was under the impression that Zehnder comfoflex was fairly expensive but you seem to say otherwise? How much are they selling for let's say 6 vents and 3 returns? I'm based in Quebec so unsure if our construction code allows it but I would love to use Zehnder system instead of regular galvanized ducts.

    2. rajibroy | | #35

      The Panasonic intelibalance has good performance for a reasonable price. Does Zehnder sell the comfort tube and diffuser separately?


    3. paulmagnuscalabro | | #64

      DC, GREAT thread!

      Alberto, could you elaborate on what you mean by a "good, waterproof subroof"?
      Do you mean something as simple as a burly self-adhered membrane + rigid insulation + nail base (plywood, whatever) + high-temp underlayment + corrugated roofing? Or am I not thinking about this correctly?

  6. paul_wiedefeld | | #6

    Beyond design considerations mentioned above, it seems like DIY and true cost-effectiveness are often at odds and the DIY savings come from inaccurate accounting and/or risky behavior whether known or more concerning, unknown. I think there should be an acknowledgement that professionals know more than amateurs like myself and professional builders aren't usually millionaires, so a race to the bottom on price means you're making major sacrifices, often on quality and safety while rarely actually lowering costs.

    In addition, it’s important to keep the proper perspective on the 3 areas of focus and expand beyond the home itself. Often building cost goes down as other costs go up, for example it’s much more energy/cost efficient to walk than drive but housing is often cheaper in car dependent places.

    Last, an exit strategy is key. Not every forever home stays a forever home and upfront savings can be erased by resale losses.

    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #14

      There is still an enormous amount of unskilled labor that goes into building a house though. Just carrying all the materials in and all the trash out is a full-time job. Although I suspect that when most owner-builders imagine themselves helping out there thinking more along the lines of mortising a live-edge slab for a mantlepiece with deft chisel strikes, and less along the lines of carrying bundles of shingles up to the roof.

      1. paul_wiedefeld | | #19

        Yes but that doesn’t exactly save any money.

      2. andy_ | | #32

        Never carry shingles up to the roof. Have them delivered to the roof. Call yourself a contractor and the roofing supplier will deliver them to the roof for free.
        A lot of the unskilled labor that is used on site can be avoided entirely by experience and planning.
        In a solo build I was asked how I got a few really big beams up in place. "Easy. Leverage. Get a really long lever and put a case of beer on it. Your friends will come over, lift the beams, then the beer."

    2. Robert Opaluch | | #37

      Clearly if an owner-builder is doing the work, its cheaper than hiring a professional. Some may not be able to afford a home, a renovation, or addition unless they were willing and able to do a good part of the labor. And let's face it, most of the work is not rocket science.

      It is difficult to make generalizations about owner-builders or about "professional" builders. Most of the pro's on this site probably do excellent work. But my experience is that plumbers in particular are not doing good work in many cases. At least an owner-builder is motivated to do a good job on their own home, and willing to take the extra time to do things right, and try some new ideas discussed on this site. I've heard too many "good enough for a government job" type comments from "professionals" who aren't doing the best job they could, or who really don't care about the quality of their work. Just get it done fast and move on. Versus pro's who are very willing to educate others on how to do things well and more quickly. There are horror stories about nutty or incompetent owner-builders, as well as about crooked so-called professionals who walk off with your deposit, do mediocre or poor work, or don't finish the job and never return.

      The main issue with owner-builders is lack of experience, leading to some design, code, or construction errors. With some feedback from others and a little experience, most of this can be avoided. (Agree though that there are many examples like those cited here, where inexperienced owner-builders are doing outlandish things outside the norm. But these are not typical owner-builders.) Most owner-builders likely are open to learning before doing the work, likely hire pro's to work with them, to get their advice, help and access to tools. After all, its their own house they are building, renovating or adding on. They have to live with their mistakes and their nice work.

      1. paul_wiedefeld | | #40

        It’s not whether it’s absolutely cheaper: it’s whether is meaningfully cheaper than the alternative once everything is accounted more. If an owner builder is contributing hundreds or thousands hours of their labor, is the quality, liability, safety, etc. of that labor equivalent to what they could buy? And is that $/hour more or less than their other options and is it actually meaningfully so? Many hurdles to clear here.

  7. Expert Member
    BILL WICHERS | | #7

    I think one issue is that people tend to focus on one part of a project and miss the big picture. People unfamiliar with construction are likely to think they can save a lot by saving on materials, so they think about things like shipping containers or packing dirt into old tires. They forget about labor costs. You often end up with a tradeoff where the cheaper materials mean more labor, and often times that ends up putting you into the red -- the better/newer materials save so much labor that the more expensive materials are actually cheaper when looked at as just one part of a larger project.

    People with construction experience are more likely to think about the labor necassary to do nonstandard things, and consdier that cost when making recommendations. This being a green building site, we also get people periodically looking at what I'll call "build off the land" (similar to "live off the land") people, who want to use things like strawbales and the like. This can work, but those people have different goals (minimizing the use of manufactured materials) from most people on GBA that want to maximize energy efficiency and use modern materials to do that.

    My own opinion here is pretty much the same as Malcolm's: take standard practices and build on that, using things like better details, better materials, that sort of thing. There is a big difference between framing your corner with one less stud and building with old tires and dirt. If you are work to optimize the standard methods, and use some upgraded materials (more exterior rigid foam, etc.), you can increase efficiency and cut energy consumption over the life of the home. You can go all the way to full Passive Haus if you want to spend the money, so I'll use that as the extreme end of the "save energy" side of things.

    For me, optimizing the use of materials is the best option, and keeping construction as close to "normal" as possible. I can save money using things like reclaimed polyiso, that still installs the same as new. Clever layouts (think of those "living in xxx square feet" displays at ikea) can minimize square footage requirements without making a house feel small or cramped. Slab on grade saves on excavation costs. Keeping down on corners and fancy rooflines keeps costs down too.


    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #13

      I think you're spot on that inexperience people tend to focus on materials. I'll add that they tend not to realize what goes into the cost of a house. Most of the ideas for "innovative" materials tend to focus on the frame of the house, probably because it's the biggest and most visible part. But it's also the cheap part of a house; interior finishes, exterior finishes and mechanicals are where the money's at.

      Hell, here in DC you could spend 15% of your budget on "soft" costs -- pre-construction costs to get you through plans and permitting.

    2. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #20


      I experienced a poignant illustration of the problems of non-standard construction earlier this week. A woman knocked on my door late Monday night and asked if I was a designer. She needed help because the courts refuse to allow her son to come stay with her because she hasn't got a permanent dwelling on her site. She hasn't been able to build one because she wants to use bagged-earth construction and no local architects, structural engineers, or builders will touch her project.

      I had never heard of that construction method, but when I looked into it it was apparent that it has virtually no chance of getting approved under our building code. Whatever it's merits that's the reality, and her insistence on pursuing building that way is causing all sorts of problems in her life. I was unable to convince her that some compromises might be the best path forward.

      1. Expert Member
        BILL WICHERS | | #24

        That sounds like a variation on mud brick structures. I've always thought that earthen structures aren't going to work well in an area like yours that is famous for it's rain.

        In my work as a consulting engineer, people basically pay me for my knowledge and experience. They don't always listen though, thinking they know better. Sometimes I have been hired for a second round to fix the problems I warned about when the project was being built, but sometimes you just have to walk away. It's not worth fighting with people who don't listen and don't understand why what they want isn't going to work, and those same people tend to point the fingers back at you when things start falling apart.


  8. tim_dilletante | | #8

    The cheapest house is one that is already built, otherwise you guys said it all.

  9. PBP1 | | #9

    Some potentially helpful things:
    1. utilities: design to minimize distances to water, sewer, electric (above or under), cable (over or under) and gas (if gas)
    2. know what municipality wants in terms of apron, sidewalk, curb, etc. and minimize if possible
    3. know how property taxes are estimated (bedrooms, bathrooms, even bar sinks) and minimize
    4. slab on grade and/or helical piers (installed in a day or two)
    5. DIY air sealing after hours when trades are not present
    6. order extra sets of blueprints - also simple CAD program to help visualize
    7. ask big box stores about sales/upcoming sales on doors, windows, etc.
    8. get a contractor account if possible for discount (you may be spending $30k+)
    9. order fixtures in advance - ready for trades (minimize non-productive time)
    10. do your own network cables (when trades are done for the day)
    11. know color/paint schemes well in advance and heating/cooling effects if any
    12. make informed decisions quickly - minimize non-productive time
    13. be onsite often but not intrusive and keep communication open
    14. clean up for trades/handle the waste - if amenable - people can work faster/safer in cleaner spaces
    15. arrange in advance with neighbor(s) for use of electrical, water, etc.
    16. become familiar with people at municipality building services and be kind
    17. pay on time or in advance (cash discounts?)

    1. Robert Opaluch | | #38

      18. Build during a recession, not boom times!

  10. GBA Editor
    Kiley Jacques | | #10

    I love this prompt, DC. It just so happens that earlier today I was talking with Brian Pontolilo about the house he is about to start building for himself. He is learning just how expensive it is to do the things he knows to be best practices and has begun to look for ways to cut those costs. (I intend to tap him during the build for tips on cost-saving measures.) Have you seen Randy Williams’s post: A Code-Minimum Case Study? You will likely also appreciate this article from Martin: The Best Way to Build a House.

    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #17

      Thanks for the links. I liked this in Martin's article: "Nip these ideas in the bud
      There are a few things that you don’t want to include in your house. You don’t want a chimney, a wood stove, or a fireplace; and you don’t want in-floor hydronic heating."

      I would add sky lights to that list. We could probably have a whole other thread on what not to put into a cost-effective house.

      1. Expert Member
        NICK KEENAN | | #18

        And of course Randy's house has to go and have hydronic floor heating.

    2. Expert Member
      BILL WICHERS | | #25

      Thinking about PBP's comment about doing your own networking: BE SURE you use REAL network cable. Don't use any of the CCA (Copper Clad Aluminum) cable that is available for cheap from places like Amazon and Ebay. CCA cable doesn't meat any cat-anything specs (the specs specifically require copper conductors), and it's use is disallowed in many areas too. This isn't a good way to save money.

      Copper being as expensive as it is right now, I would take care to try to centrally locate the electric panel. If you put the panel on the end of the house, you'll end up with ALL the runs in the house having to go a long way. If you can put the panel in a more central location, you will cut down on how much wiring you need to run. I'd also try to locate the panel near the heaviest loads (A/C, cooktop, oven, etc.), to minimize the length of those heavy gauge, expensive, cables. It's cheaper to extend the service cable a little than it is to extend a whole lot of smaller cables a long way. Note that there are codes about how far an unprotected (i.e. no circuit breaker) cable can be between the meter and panel, usually 10 feet or less. Longer than that and you need a breaker (main disconnect) at the meter.

      Note that the heavy service cable can be aluminum, which is MUCH cheaper than copper. I have no problem using aluminum here, IF you use no-ox paste on the connections, and you apply it correctly (it's supposed to be worked in between the strands and not just smeared on the surface). Compression lugs are much better though.

      Careful layout of water lines helps cut down materials and labor costs too. PEX saves a lot over copper, so I'd use PEX if possible.

      All the usual stuff about using reclaimed materials where possible apply, especially in the case of rigid foam.

      Brian is probably already aware, but warn him about extended leadtimes on a lot of product right now. Circuit breakers have been a problem in that regard, as have many electric panels. Meter cans in my area are in very short supply. I'm told steel floor pan for commercial buildings might as well be gold bars right now too -- contractors have been calling around looking for any forgotten leftovers. Project scheduling is a lot harder than it used to be due to all the issues sourcing materials these days.


      1. PBP1 | | #44

        Thanks Bill, always a pleasure reading your posts. I did make sure that the cable was good, there's so much crap on the market. I had the electrician do the job, after checking the specs of what he brought in and then I bought some more that I ran. I got a network analyzer and had the electrician return as a couple sockets did not read correctly, I wanted the ability to use PoE devices along with not using Wi-Fi for computers. And, good point on plumbing, I consolidated all bathrooms around the sewer and water supply. The only hot faucet more than 15 feet away is the kitchen sink. As to the supply chain - ugh.

  11. nickdefabrizio | | #12

    Great thread! Thanks for thinking it up.

    Lets think about reducing embedded energy as well as operating energy by throwing away less and reusing materials. Also, as material prices go up, alternative sources of material become more viable: recycled materials, tear downs, building supply auctions of surplus inventory (e.g.,, Facebook Marketplace and Craigslist...Here are a few examples in my life:

    When it came time to renovate my dad's home on LBI at the Jersey Shore, he didn't have enough money, so I bought an entire used kitchen on Craigslist ($1,500, including quartz tops) and 42 Anderson windows and sliding doors for $5,000. I got all kinds of materials for free from a neighbor who was tearing down his house

    I was able to get the quartz for my countertops from remnants from a large fabrication shop and learned to fabricate them myself for 1/5 of the cost and these would have ended up in the landfill.

    I built my daughter's deck with trex bought at a Peak Auction for $0.50 linear ft.

    I have an entire barn full of cherry, sassafras, redwood, cedar and poplar I got from an old lumber yard that was closing.

    There are millions of board feet of high quality lumber from floor joists and beams in NYC buildings (and many other older cities) built in the 19th century-they get torn down every day and far too much of it ends up in landfills.

  12. mikeferro | | #15

    I'll add a controversial opinion to the thread:

    In 2022 SIPs are at least as cost effective as a double-stud wall and far easier for less advanced builders to reliably install to meet energy performance goals.

    Over the summer I priced both standard 6.5" EPS SIPS and a staggered double stud wall clad with standard ZIP sheathing and filled with dense-pack cellulose for a new home I'm in-process of building in Maine and was shocked that the costs were nearly identical.

    When I dug into the numbers I found that the increased costs in labor to frame, sheath, and insulate the wall combined with the increased cost of building materials acquired by the builder at relative low-volume made the double stud wall quite expensive to build and nearly identical in cost to the SIP.

    1. cmcgrath09 | | #57

      Which Sip company did you price? I am building in NH and tried to reach out to several SIP companies for prices for my build this summer and never heard back from any of them. So looks like I will be stick framing.

  13. rockies63 | | #16

    Read through Sarah Susanka's series of books, starting with "The Not So Big House" which can be found at any library if you don't want to buy them.

    Other than that, you could finish the house in stages if money is really tight. Do the kitchen, bathroom, living room and master bedroom and leave the spare rooms until later.

    More importantly, have a look at assumptions. Don't assume that you need a huge dining room just so you can host 14 people for Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner - you could build in some bookcases so it becomes a library or turn it into an office with a built-in desk.

    Don't build in four different places to eat - breakfast bar, breakfast nook, dining room and family room. Don't think you need his and hers closets, an ensuite bathroom for every bedroom or a sitting room off the master bedroom. Ask yourself - is it really a need or just a want? Your answers will help you trim down the size of your house and naturally save you money.

  14. AC200 | | #22

    This is very timely as I am currently in construction drawing phase moving to engineering shortly for my build. This has been one of the most informative sites. I've spent hours pouring through past articles, watching BS and Beer, and spent time and purchasing publications at BSC. I can say that the information has influenced several decisions on my build:

    1. Ditch the hydronic floor heat and insulate under the slab using higher density GPS and rigid R10 up the basement walls followed by bat filled stud walls. Minimize use of spray foam. This was one one of the details in an article here. Hydronic heat was only for ambient comfort and a huge expense combined with mechanical room complexity. Area rugs and slippers are much cheaper.

    2. Replace the pro gas range and showpiece vent hood with induction cooktop and smaller hood. Simplifies make up air requirement and reduces appliance costs.

    3. Window design with multiple sashes and grids for architectural design kept on front elevation only. Grids removed and sashes combined on side and rear elevations. Operating sashes limited. Best quality windows that can be accommodated in budget.

    4. Forget about slick marketing on products such as mesh rainscreens and use wood strapping and put the money into air sealing. Stick with good construction techniques with proven materials.

    5. Only one gas fireplace inside the house, electric in basement. Reduce number of skylights

    TBD: Cold climate heat pump and heat pump hot water tank. We have great government incentives for replacement but not for new construction :-(

    Keep all these ideas coming! And thank you everyone.

    1. nickdefabrizio | | #23

      "Area rugs and slippers are much cheaper"...please add thermal socks, flannel insulated jeans and shirts to that list as well.

      It seems like an amusing statement, but it highlights an important point. If we are serious about energy efficiency as necessary for the survival of the planet, we need to consider behavioral modifications in how we live and how we utilize our dwelling spaces that will allow us to reduce energy consumption beyond what building practices alone can do.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #27


        " If we are serious about energy efficiency as necessary for the survival of the planet"

        Not meaning to sound nihilistic, but I see little evidence that we are serious, or that people are willing to make the necessary changes on a large enough scale to make a difference. That's maybe a separate question than whether individuals should still do what they can for moral reasons, but let's be clear-eyed about this. However laudable, the efforts of a few high performance single family house builders, or the energy conserving efforts of the small part of the population concerned about this simply aren't significant.

        1. nickdefabrizio | | #30

          Unfortunately I agree with you. At this point in our history, particularly as it pertains to the US, I am not optimistic that we will change enough of our behavior in large enough numbers to make much of a difference. In fact, I just commented essentially to this effect on Martin's article in his "Musings...." section which describes the "Winterization" protests in the UK and the aggressive regulations being implemented in France on rental property. More than anything else, the issue seems to be a lack of will more than a lack of knowledge.

          Still, for my own personal sanity and well being, I will continue to advocate for change and hope that even a small number of early adopters can create trends that have more far reaching results. One thing seems clear, young people are more concerned and willing to change than my generation....

        2. AC200 | | #31

          As long as policy makers and politicians continue to receive large contributions from the fossil fuel industry, even acknowledging the need for change will be difficult.

  15. tim_dilletante | | #26

    I can offer some perspective from the client side. I'm planning a 1.5 story ADU in my yard in Maine. I am doing much the work myself, not to save money but for my own personal edification. I may be saving on labor costs but I devote 100% my spare time to this endeavor. Is a person trying to save money willing to spend the time? And not just time humping materials or swinging a hammer. I have hours and hours spent drawing, researching, dealing with permits, drawing some more, and now picking out specific materials to put together orders. Exactly the kind of thing one would pay an expert for, no matter what the house is built out of.
    The conversations around saving money seem to go straight to techniques and materials, but there's a planning and permitting component I didn't really account for. I'm enjoying the process, but I wonder how many dreamers of a $50sqft house appreciate the effort on this side of the project.
    Also, how would anyone get a loan for a straw bale house? Or homeowner's insurance? There's a reality that just can't be avoided unless you are truly going back to the land.
    I can do my project the way I want because I can pay cash, if I had to get a loan it would add even more complexity.

  16. joenorm | | #28

    I am finishing up a smaller (1450sqft) home in a high cost area that came in at around $150sqft with high-end finishes and exterior with fiberglass windows and doors.

    That number is before my labor and I cannot possibly count the hours I have in. But it's been about two years of building and working full time.

    Like others have said I was happy with a rectangle (almost a square).

    I have a single head mini split that heats the entire house combined with a wood stove.

    I used parallel chord trusses and got r-60 in the roof(I needed them for the span but lots of room for insulation, too.

    Standard 2x6 construction with blown in fiberglass. Hiring out the insulation was cheap and well worth it.

    If I did it over I would have used Zip System sheathing to save the time of wrapping the building.

    I air sealed myself and installed my PV array.

    One thing I notice is people not considering their climate enough. In Maine you have to go overboard to have a comfortable house. But in the Pacific Northwest it's not that cold, so why overbuild?

    Interesting thread for sure

  17. andy_ | | #33

    That is something that doesn't cost much and will reap large benefits down the road.

  18. andy_ | | #34

    Dimensions are key. For example, I worked on a house recently where a couple rooms were 12'4". Drywall is easily available in 12' sheets around here, but not 14' so now there will be a bunch more butt joint seams in these rooms. That's not a huge cost, but it does add up and slow things down and didn't need to be this way. I see it a lot in things like roof sheathing or wall stud placement due to window locations or pipes.
    Keep it simple and keep it in whole pieces!

  19. dfvellone | | #36

    "A recurring theme when people suggest non-conventional construction is they want to save money and participate in the project by doing some of the work themselves. So what are materials and techniques where a person of ordinary abilities can participate meaningfully?"

    Aside from sourcing reclaimed foam insulation, there's nothing about high performance materials that can save you money on your construction budget. Yes, those materials will save you money on your heating and cooling bills down the road, but for most modest incomes that fact won't keep construction costs down and make building a high performance home a reality.
    Modest size and design, layout, etc., certainly is a big factor in keeping costs down, but I'm not sure exactly where a person of ordinary abilities can participate beyond painting. How many folks are building their homes with cash and can forego the construction loan with all its restrictions and timetables? A qualified mason, carpenter, electrician, plumber, sheetrocker is a skilled craftsperson working with materials that, today especially, demand big bucks. I don't mean to sound negative, but I don't think high performance construction is synonymous with ordinary abilities. Neither is it it with saving money, at least in the immediate. Like most responses here, I'd say to save money the best bet is to keep it small with an uncomplicated roofline and minimum bathrooms.

  20. Robert Opaluch | | #39

    If you understand what is necessary and sufficient to get the Certificate of Occupancy, you can leave half the work building a house for the future. Get the CO, move in, get a mortgage (maybe with some requirements to complete some work in return for some bank payout, as in my case), and complete the job with less financial and time stress. That cuts the money outlay in half, and the time to completion in least for the time being.

    Of course the spouse or partner might not be pleased living in the house with "a few minor things to finish some day"...especially when you slack off for a while after a year of hard work.

    1. Aaron_P2 | | #47

      I was think about this same thing the other day - it would be interesting to list all the things builders/homeowner/developers could consider leaving for the occupants to finish. I understand some item may be location specific to the local authorities, but it might be useful to create a starting point.

    2. Expert Member
      MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #49


      Here you are able to get temporary occupancy, but the clock is ticking. It's rare to be able to spin it out for a year, and final occupancy means absolutely everything needs to be done.

      Two things mitigate against moving into an unfinished house:

      The first is as you mentioned - most lenders are reluctant to finance something they can't easily resell. That's why they almost always put a time limit on construction, and make mortgages contingent on having a contract with a licensed builder.

      The second is that it's a lot harder to work on a house once it's occupied. The outstanding work often never gets done.

      Maybe a better strategy is to initially build small, but make provisions for several future expansions?

      1. Expert Member
        NICK KEENAN | | #51

        Yeah, here everything including the landscaping needs to be done to get C of O.

  21. lbutler | | #41

    As has been made clear by the comments, there are obvious limitations on how cheaply you can construct a house. Burning money on a badly designed build is easy, particularly if the home is oversized (the basic definition of an American home), but the threshold for basic costs on a good home is quite high. So unless you’ve got a lot of free materials and free labor available, forget the inexpensive house.

    If you’re serious about cutting the cost of a new home, there are two places to do it, and those are the overpriced parts--the kitchen and bathrooms. Doing this will require you to move out of the “person of ordinary capabilities” category, but it is doable and there is no question that this is where you can save the most money. In short, learn how to build kitchen cabinets. Subscribe to Fine Homebuilding, spend $10,000 or so to put together a shop, and spend a year or so of your free time learning the basics. Throw in tiling as well, if you’re disciplined. The payback on these is huge--a big contrast to learning how to frame a house, for example. And though the $10,000 for tools might seem a lot up front, you’ll easily save more than that on your new kitchen. On top of that, your cabinets, even if fairly basic, should be better than most of the stuff sold out there. Not very feasible, one might say. Sure, but then it is a prime indicator of how seriously one wants a good house at a reasonable cost.

    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #42

      I agree with you on tiling. You can get tile on clearance for next to nothing. The tools for a basic tile job are pretty minimal. If you can measure and cut you can tile. And it gives a high-end look.

      I disagree about cabinets though. You can buy stock-size RTA cabinets online for less than it would cost to buy the materials retail.

  22. seabornman | | #43

    As a DIY homebuilder in the cold northeast, I found exterior insulation to be the easiest self-performed work possible. I had my framer build what he regularly builds, then I screwed on the window buck extensions, and then installed two layers of foam board and strapping. The water/air barrier is easy to install. The work is simple and doesn't require accuracy. After that I did additional DIY work: baffles, interior insulation, blown-in cellulose, siding, trim, paint, flooring, ductwork. I'd heartily recommend exterior insulation to anyone building in cold climates.

  23. BirchwoodBill | | #45

    Love this thread. Still designing the retirement home to Very Good House standards—great air sealing. My question is what shouldn’t a home owner do? As a retired engineer (Software/Chemical), I am very comfortable doing the design, electrical, plumbing, grunt work, hydronics, controls, drywall install. What should I be contracting out? Concrete, framing, insulation, roofing, siding? Should a home owner help out (without interfering), or should they just stay out of the way?

    1. Robert Opaluch | | #46

      General answer....what are owner builders allowed to do legally? I could do anything building a single family house for myself, but had LOTS of inspections to pass. Some counties has almost no inspections. However, cities back east typically require work done by licensed pros, especially electrical and plumbing, so owner-builders have to hire a licensed pro, even if they have the knowledge and desire to do the work themselves. I won't do some plumbing work now that clearly would not be legal.

      What areas does the owner builder have the knowledge, tools and desire to do?
      For example, I ended up subbing out drywall finish work. It was cheap and I lacked the tools and the skill to do it quickly and well. Probably I would not have been able to do a knock-down texture to my own satisfaction. I also hired help to design plumbing and be taught how to do DWV since I lacked that knowledge and experience. So shared the work there. In some cases, I'd rather hire someone with the tools to do the work, rather than rent tools in crummy condition and do it solo.

      Schedule and funding matters. If you don't have the cash or loan, can the work be deferred until some future time? Like most cabinets, finish flooring and trim. If you can afford to pay a pro, you might want to hire to get the work done more quickly, especially since you can do something else while that work gets done.

      Occasionally you have to hire help as its tough to do solo (e.g., beams, roof trusses).

      Many simply don't have any interest in doing construction work (e.g., my ex refused to help or wasn't in the best of moods when she would). I think its sad when people don't want to improve their own home. Interests vary.

    2. jonny_h | | #48

      Contract out the things that (a) you don't want to do, (b) lack the skills or comfort to do, or (c) it'd cost more to buy the tools to do it right than to hire someone to do.

      From your list, drywall is a thing I'd probably contract out (and that I am planning to in my project) -- it's not a fun job, and the guys who do it professionally can knock out a house really quick and for not a lot of cost. I also contracted out some wood floor refinishing -- I did part of the house myself, but after renting the sanders and everything and two days of my time, it made more sense to hire someone for the rest. I've also seen a roofing crew work and they had a whole house done in the time it'd probably take me to do the first row of shingles, so yeah, probably hire that out.

      To maximize cost savings, do the things that have a higher labor : materials cost ratio yourself -- electrical, plumbing, air sealing details. But, as Robert mentions, be aware of what you can legally do. I live in an area where homeowners are allowed to do almost everything on their own home, and have had no issues dealing with the building department, but some areas are stricter on licensed pros for everything. HVAC work would require an EPA cert for anything dealing with refrigerant, but you could probably find a tech to do that part of the job on the side (or get the cert yourself).

      I've often seen advice for homeowners looking to save money on renovation projects to DIY more of the "grunt work" things like demolition, and hire out the more precision trades, but personally, if I were to do this over again, I'd tend to hire out more of the grunt work early on. I (and my helpers) spent way too much time tearing stuff out and putting it in dumpsters, and the more precision stuff is a lot more fun and interesting to work on (and you can be confident that you're paying sufficient attention to the details)

      1. joenorm | | #50

        I would disagree on the roof. If the roof design is easy then clicking in standing seam roofing is EASY. And the flashing is not hard either. The key is not having any complex spots only a pro knows how to deal with. And roofers charge A LOT. I saved tons doing this DIY.

  24. dfvellone | | #52

    After reading a couple more posts on this subject, particularly DCContrarian's comment regarding landscaping requirements for a certificate of occupancy, I'd say that even before you start your first napkin sketch of your new home you'd do well to decide where you want to build and live based on the local building codes department requirements if your goal is contributing a good bit of your own labor to keep costs down.

    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #55

      Or alternately, find out what the place where you want to live is going to insist on. But either way it can be an expensive mistake to start on a project and then find out city hall isn't going to allow it.

      1. Expert Member
        MALCOLM TAYLOR | | #56


        I have copies of all the local zoning and bylaws, but at the start of each new project, the first thing I do is go into our regional services building and talk to a planner.

        1. AC200 | | #59

          I studied all the zoning by-laws and called the planning department on specific properties before buying my infill lot. Even asked them what would be looked on favorably for a minor variance. Real estate agents gave me wrong information. When so much is at stake, this is generally easy to do and free, but often overlooked. My minor variance approval was smooth.

      2. dfvellone | | #58

        Right. Or have your moving truck packed only to find out that you still need 5000 square feet of sod.

  25. maresand | | #62

    Hello, DCContrarian! I do agree with your points number 1 and 2. They are very important if you are planning to build a good house. Also, you didn't mention the fire system. In my opinion, setting the proper alert and fire system is very important because you can lose all of your houses if you have a bad security company or bad connected fire system detectors. So to any of you planning to build/renovate a house, think about setting the proper fire system with the help of a professional company like

    1. Expert Member
      NICK KEENAN | | #63

      Thank you for spamming.

  26. mikeolder | | #65

    Great contrarian thread, considering the majority of the talk around here is about "comfort"

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