The ProHousing Project
The Owner-Built House
When I was a young boy, my most vivid recollection of my father was with a hammer
or a saw in hand, building us a home. Of course we were living in it while it
was being built. Sometimes we put up with some real hardships, but now we reminisce
about our wonderful adventure together. We were always in a state of excitement,
creating our own home around us. I just couldn't wait until that day that I could
be building my own home. Now I look back upon having built the last four of my own
residences. In fact I am still putting the finishing touches on my own current
In my profession of designing homes, I often have the opportunity of helping someone
build their own house. With my experiences of building my own home four times, I
can really connect with them. There is a strong camaraderie that comes from sharing
this unique experience. We owner-builders really know what each other has had to
We must keep in mind that in America today's housing, there are two distinctly
different types of houses. One is built by construction companies as a commodity
to make a profit. One is built by its owner for his very own use. This scenario
is about that person, the "Owner-Builder", one of America's last pioneers.
Building one's own home has been an American tradition that only recently has been
taken over by gigantic commercial ventures, and professionally built houses have
replaced the family-built homestead. In the 1950s and 60s we were very prosperous
and our society became oriented around convenience and disposability. Building
your own home became unfashionable and houses for the masses were treated as just
another consumer item like processed foods and off-the-rack clothing. American
men and women were abandoning their traditional skills.
However, there is a small, significant group that tries to reverse this trend, if
perhaps only for themselves, and build their own homes out of passion, pride and
joy. They are willing to undergo a giant and rewarding task and endure all the
risks, liabilities and inconveniences that come with it. Sometimes, building one's
own home may be the only hope left to many, as property values and building costs
rise, and the economy falters.
There are many people in the world to whom the opportunity of building their own
home is an important part of the ritual of building a family. People build their
own homes for the sense of accomplishment and satisfaction of self worth. To some
people a home is an important, emotional part of their lives. For others it is
merely an economic commodity to be bought, sold and speculated on.
The opportunity for creating "sweat equity" is also a great incentive for building
one's own home. To more and more people this is very important, because their sweat
equity is the only equity they can muster. Many people who are building their own
homes do it in a state of excitement and eagerness, at great personal risk and
inconvenience. This is one of the last great sacrifices of the modern world that
really pays off. What can be more satisfying than seeing one's own enthusiasm
being converted directly into real net worth? Putting this energy and initiative
to good use would be an obvious step in solving the crisis in low-cost
However, this seems to be discouraged by the building, zoning and energy codes, or
at least that's the way it looks to me. While not overtly discriminatory, the code
is obviously directed toward the building profession and does not address the
owner-builder's unique situation. The same regulations that have successfully
protected the house buyer from unscrupulous building contractors have put
unnecessary restrictions and obstacles in the way of the owner-builder.
From the owner-builder's point of view, the building department is protecting the
home-builder from himself. As I was building my own homes I realized that the
codes were not really written for me, but for professional builders or
speculators who make their living building homes. In this case they probably
serve very well. But as an owner-builder I found that I had wandered into an
industry-oriented activity and had to play in a big league game.
The codes make sense when they protect the consumer from the building industry,
but in the case of the owner-builder, they are redundant. An owner-builder should
be allowed to be responsible for his own home. I know that my son never really
needed a full size stair with returning handrails to get up to his 5'x 8' loft.
And I would have preferred living in a relatively finished portion of my house
rather than having to buy a camping trailer to comply with the occupancy restriction
in the building code. I can see why these codes apply to professional house builders,
but they don't seem to make much sense to the owner-builder's situation.
I think that owner-builders should be finally recognized as a major factor in
easing the housing crisis. Let's face it, there is no shortage of $200,000 homes.
However, there is a shortage of really low-cost homes. Developers and
contractors know that there is no money to be made at this level, and
consequently, low-cost homes are not built. What makes real sense to me is
to encourage, help and empower people to build their own homes. Instead of
pumping more government money into housing programs that have questionable
merit, why not a tax break to help the owner-builder during this critical
Australia is a source of information and inspiration for owner-builders, as many
Australian communities now include an owner-builder category in their building
codes. Home-builders' associations have been formed to further their cause.
The Nimbin Homebuilders Association put their position this way:
"Housing is a national crisis issue and the professional solution has priced
itself beyond the reach of the majority of citizens. To own a house implies
committing oneself to a mortgage and guaranteed income level for the majority
of one's working life. Encouraging owner/building is a means of creating
more and cheaper houses. It will also lead to the development of creative
solutions to the problems of shelter that the professional system, bound
by finance and market considerations, cannot explore.
We believe that, if owner/builders when they start do not know how best to
create their structures, they will profit in the learning derived from the
experience and the community will gain wiser, more resourceful and self-reliant
citizens. Allowed freedom of choice in a climate relieved of mis-education
and useless restriction, the human community has made and can make decisions
meaningful for itself.
We seek the recognition of the validity and value of our lifestyles within the
existing social order and a sympathetic interpretation of land zoning and
building regulations of, where necessary, the creation of special provisions
to accommodate the land use and building types evolving from the lifestyles.
We oppose statewide uniform building regulations and seek a code flexible enough
to reflect local needs and resources. In particular, we seek recognition of
the distinction between houses built for personal shelter and houses built for
profit and the distinction between rural and urban houses.
We believe the legitimate domain of building regulations is solely in the
protection of the interest of third parties with regard to health, safety,
environmental impact and structural quality.
We believe matters of private design (including choice of building life span)
and construction (including choice of material and means of construction) to
be outside the domain of building regulations in regard to the owner built
In this regard we seek inclusion in building regulations of a clause
to make special provision for buildings constructed by the property owner
or his agent for the owner's use or for people related by blood or law (as,
for example, by membership of a land-owning entity like a co-operative or
company) or for any other persons the owner may nominate from time to time
to be residents.
In respect of owner/builders we seek a change in the role of building
inspector. We believe he/she should be a public servant advising owner
builders on techniques of home-building and helping with solutions to
We seek special land zoning which will permit sharing land with others,
either communally, in hamlets sharing common facilities, or in clusters
of self-contained dwellings or in any other manner of group sharing."
From John Archer, The Home Building Experience: John Archer Talks to Owner
Builders, ABC Enterprises for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation,
Sydney, Australia 1985. Reprinted with permission.
It seems like many of these same housing issues that we find in Australia are
similar to our situations in the United States. In our county, the vast numbers
of homeless people are prevented from having any meaningful habitation simply by
their existence not being addressed in current laws and codes. From the same source,
here is what an
Australian owner-builder says:
"The laws against temporary occupancy and those that say you can't build a
building less than so much in size -- these sort of building regulations are
among the most iniquitous laws in this country. All over Australia people
are living in appalling conditions simply because some stupid by-law says
your house must be so big or built of such and such a material. They'd be
happy to live in tiny places and they could build them themselves but they've
got to do it illegally.
To me it's a social evil that it is the affluent in the community who define
the shape and size and cost of the sorts of houses that under-privileged
people have to build.
We've got to re-think some of these things and it's not easy."
Finally, from John Archer again, I like this statement by an Australian owner-builder that clearly
reveals their philosophy:
"Peter: People get too bound up with the traditional concept that a house
should be finished quickly. Maybe the owner builder philosophy looks at
building a house as an ongoing process, as part of a lifestyle rather than
something which has to be done in a short time span or on some tight schedule.
It's obviously important to have a stage finished where you can live but then
you can relax and take your time.
John: So you see owner building as a philosophy?
Peter: It's better if it is. That way you won't make life harder for yourself
by hurrying the whole thing like I tried to do. When you rush, you make
mistakes and you have to live with those. Later you're frustrated because
you didn't take the time to do a better job.
Once the first stage was done, I felt more able to enjoy building and now I'm
not in a hurry to finish. Every time there's a work group at my place
something gets done. It's just part of my life -- I do a bit of building
The concept of an owner-builder zoning category while not wide-spread, is not
totally new. Although it seems like a Utopian impossibility, it has actually
been established in some American communities for some time now.
Island County in Washington State has a zoning category called "the Owner-Builder
Permit" with which a person can build anything he pleases as long as it conforms
to sanitary and energy codes. It carries provisions that the person who builds one
must reside in it for a minimum length of time, and upon selling, reveal that it
is owner-built, upon which time the informed buyer assumes responsibility for
Mendocino, California, has an owner-builder code called "Regulations For Limited
Density Rural Dwellings", which was an outgrowth of the "Class K Occupancy"
addition to the 1972 State Uniform Building Code.
The codes are carefully written to define owner-builders in such a way that
prescribes the work that the owner must do himself and to assure that the
category does not become a loop-hole for developers to build houses outside
of the current building code.
I believe that every community should adopt this kind of category, and make it
a policy to encourage owner-builders and recognize them as an important part
of the community. They should be granted the freedom to accept the responsibility
that they are willing to take in order to build their own home.
ProHousing Main Page
Zoning & Planning
Local & Global
Ron Konzak Home Page
ProHousing - Copyright © 1991, 1999 by Ron Konzak
Please credit the author when distributing all or portions of this material.
Written permission from the author is required for any commercial use of this material.