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So you want to design a house (Pt. 2)

April 27, 2011

Stewart Builders

Back to business…

This post could have a secondary title that reads “Know Your S**t,” because I’ll be focusing on dealing with bankers, general contractors, and engineers.

Mr. B and I each have the areas that most interest us (or disinterest the other) dealing with the building process. I am interested in things like energy efficiency, wall finishes, and being warm. Mr. B is interested in structure, Simpson strong ties, and foundation type. This makes us a good team because we can each put a lot of time into understanding this areas; individually we would never be able to build this house, which I guess is a metaphor for a good marriage. I just wanted to add a few caveats though: (1) I will not be talking about the areas of Mr. B’s expertise, and (2) if you don’t understand or care to learn about some aspect of home building, don’t even try to fake it.

1. Banks:

Unless you are independently wealthy or really very good at saving money, you will need to deal with a bank for at least part of your land purchase and home construction. I wish we could go back two months ago and re-do our first meeting with our banker more than anything else about this experience so far. Mr. B and I knew we were interested in the property but didn’t know if we would be able to get a land or construction loan. We went into the meeting without plans, not knowing our finances, without a cost breakdown, and no way to show how much work we’ve done to our house. The banker heard us say that we didn’t have formal construction experience and wanted to build our own house, and she was very uncomfortable. We have continued to work with this bank, but that first impression of us as “DIY-ers” has never disappeared from our interaction with our banker and has cause a lot of anxiety and hoop-jumping on our part. Lessons learned: if at all possible, go into your first meeting with the banker with house plans, information about the property, and a way to show every home remodeling project you’ve ever done.

Don’t give up if your banker has a negative impression of you though. We have managed to satisfy every requirement our banker asked for, and we’ve kept her updated by showing her plans and talking about suppliers and specifics. She told us that although other people have come to the bank wanting to build their own houses, we are one of the few that she was willing to work with because of our persistence.

2. Engineers and General Contractors

To get the most out of your conversations with professionals you should try and be the expert on your house. You probably won’t be the expert on most issues, but you might be if you are doing a locally unusual type of construction. Our engineer has designed load-bearing straw bale houses but not bale infill. Going into our first meeting well versed with every straw bale video and book meant we could have a real discussion about methods and techniques. Knowing about HRV units and their standard vent size and placement might seem useless, but you can pick your general contractors brains during a meeting. Since we were looking for a general contractor to act as a consultant, every meeting was like an interview where we needed to prove that we knew what we were talking about.

If you have been thinking about nothing but how to build and finish your house, meetings with contractors and engineers will probably be a lot of fun, a chance to finally talk to someone else who spends all their time thinking about the same thing.

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