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The ProHousing Project

Scenario Five
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 home.

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 endure.

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 housing.

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 time?

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 house.

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 building problems.

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 every week."


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 any anomalies.

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.


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