Gear Hacks is starting a project — a 1,728 square foot, “is it a garage, is it a house, does it really matter as long as it keeps you protected from the elements?” kind of project. Over the next year, my wife, Kelly, and I will be building a home on family property about 60 miles east of our current home in Oregon.
In the spirit of Gear Hacks, we’re trying to piece together the build — using skilled (and costly) labor for the times it would be stupid not to hire professionals, but otherwise doing as much as we, our friends and family can on our own. That means no general contractor and no project manager. It’s going to be messy, complicated, exhausting and, let’s hope, totally worth it.
$120,000. That’s the number we have to work with. It comes from cash from the sale of our previous home combined with a personal loan. Personal loans generally have higher interest rates and are smaller in total amount than construction loans, but construction loans (and the mortgages they roll into) have stricter requirements. Banks often want a general contractor handling the entire project, and they want the house to be comparable to other houses in the area. A personal loan offers less money at a higher interest rate, but few restrictions on how you use the money. We can’t afford a general contractor and traditional construction costs, so personal loan it is.
The goal is to have a comfortable, accessible space to live as a family and to do so without breaking the bank. For those who have done any research on custom home construction, this is easier said than done. After a ton of research on everything from traditional framing, to prefab and modular homes, to post and beam construction, we settled on … a pole building garage. Seriously.
Pole buildings get their name from the 6-by-6-inch wooden poles that, along with the roof joists, form the building’s load-bearing structure. You see them everywhere — commercial buildings, workshops, agricultural buildings — because they’re simple, quick and inexpensive to build. They might not be the prettiest, but they can be insulated and weatherproofed just as well as a traditional, stick-built house. From an accessibility stand point, the simple construction offers a few benefits, first being that they have no internal, load bearing walls, which means that the interior layout can be wide open, perfect for wheeling. Second, they’re traditionally built on a slab-on-grade foundation, which can allow you to roll right up to your front door without ramps or expensive lifts.
Another benefit is that both slab foundations and pole buildings are quick to construct, making it easy to hire locals who need small side jobs. And perhaps most crucially, they’re cheap. A quote from a recommended local company for a 36-by-48-foot structure with metal siding and roofing, plywood sheathing on the roof and walls, along with roof felt and house wrap, 10 large windows, two garage style doors and one exterior door, and all the components necessary to assemble it — everything you need for a weather-tight shell — came in at just under $28,000. With a slab foundation, including extra concrete for a carport and a large “deck,” quoted at $12,000, the total including labor to help put up the building is about $50,000. That’s less than half of what a traditional house shell and foundation would likely cost.
One of the best lessons I learned from the process of researching and getting ready to start building is that the internet is not always your best resource. It’s great for getting an overview of options and researching specific components, but construction costs vary greatly, based both on where you’re building and who you’re talking to. If you search for local builders near our property on the internet, most companies that have websites cater to those who are building million dollar homes or vacation properties along the gorgeous Columbia River Gorge. But the people who have lived here for generations are famers, orchard owners, loggers and other purveyors of physical labor. They need shops, out buildings, houses and barns, and the people they hire don’t have websites.
To find them you have to actually talk to people. It’s amazing the resources available in a small, rural community when you ask around — everybody knows everybody, and everybody does more than one thing. A good example is a guy my dad connected us with after he worked on his Harley. Matt makes the majority of his money these days by clearing trees off people’s property, but he used to run an excavation and construction company. In less than two days of total work, Matt came over with a friend, felled a few trees, came back with an excavator he’d rented from another friend, cut a level pad out of our hillside property, and cut and graveled a driveway big enough for concrete trucks to access our site. He’ll come back when we’re ready to install a septic tank and drain field, and do the finish grading for our slab. Foundation? He knows a guy. Help putting up the pole building? He knows a guy for that too. The internet has nothing on Matt.
Beyond the Shell
Our plan is to hire local help to get the shell of our home constructed, and then do the majority of the interior through DIY, friends and family. And this is where we want to hear from you, fine readers. Do you have any interior accessibility tips — anything from kitchen layout, to floor plans that work well for a wheelchair user, to bathroom hacks, to … well … anything? We want to hear about it. Wheelchair users: Have you framed a wall, hung cabinets, installed a vanity or put up drywall? We want to hear about it. Have any questions about costs, methods or our sanity? Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. We’ll be checking in on this project for the next 10 months. Let’s have a conversation about home building. Hopefully we teach each other a few things in the process.