Saturday, March 24, 2007

In Favor of Sustainable Building

Housing is an ongoing problem in America. It is expensive, impersonal and for many inadequate and inaccessible. Having a place to call your own is one of the most basic needs for human beings, yet a large portion of us are forced to live in a succession of rental places at the whims of uncaring and greedy landlords. But....that is a rant for another day.

My ancestors came from Ireland, England and Germany mostly in the 1870's and 1880's. Both sets of ancestors eventually made their way across the country to Oregon and then to the Pacific Northwest. When my mother's parents got here the first thing they did was buy a small piece of land and then built a home. The home wasn't fancy, it wasn't huge but it lasted for over 40 years and never carried a mortgage. The oldest part of the home was a log cabin built from the trees on the property. Later additions were added in stone and in salvaged lumber as space was needed and materials could be purchased.

When my grandfather had an especially large project, he would call on all the raise a ridge pole or lay cedar shakes or to build a stone addition for the new summer kitchen, just as the neighbors would call on him when there was work to be done at their places. Community was built along with homes and great friendships were forged that have endured a lifetime.

This last spring, my partner and I moved into a tri-plex. We have been here over a year and can only recognize 2 of the other tenants here and do not know any of our neighbors. The apartment is expensive and eats up about 1/3 of our income to offer 2 bedrooms, 1 tiny bath and a tiny kitchen, all built and finished to the standards of 1970's slum housing. We are not alone. Here in Seattle, housing is always at a premium. I would love to fix the place up but my lease says otherwise.

Homes do not exist for renters, instead we live in drywalled shoeboxes, but the cost of buying a house is impossible to manage. I would love to follow in my grandfather's footsteps and buy a lot and build a house but I suspect that building a log cabin in Seward park would probably get me a visit from the planning department and maybe even the police. The Seattle building department, like most other building departments, have set rules concerning building materials and methods that can be used to build a house.

To quote: In order to obtain a permit for new construction, additions and remodels, customers must provide
King County with the following:
A. Affidavit for Application Form;
B. Property Tax Account Number;
C. Legal Description of Property (three copies);
D. Proof of Legal Lot;
E. Site Plan (or Plot Plan) (on DDES template, to an engineer's scale, with no brokenlines. See text; three copies.);
F. Working Drawings (See text for requirements; two copies.);
G. Information on Heating Systems, Fireplaces and Stoves;
H. Critical Area Designation Approval (If installing new septic or well system)
I. Certificate of Sewer Availability and Related Documents;
Obtaining A Residential Building Permit
J. Certificate of Water Availability and Related Documents;
K. Valuation for Special Site Items;
L. Fees for Reviews Completed Before Permit Approval;
M. Contractor’s Registration Number OR Affidavit Regarding Contractor Registration; and
N. Miscellaneous.


No wonder we do not build our own homes anymore. Just the paperwork is worth paying someone $400,000 to do it for us...right?

In reality most of the "rules" are in place not to protect a perspective owner/build but rather to protect home buyers from shady contractors. The "rules" list has been expanded every time a person has been injured in their home, or when quality complaints start coming in. The rules are in place to protect home buyers from bad workmanship, cheap materials, and corner cutting but what these "rules" have really done is isolate the home owner from the process of building the home. Most homeowners can barely clean out their gutters, let alone replace a window or add a room. Nearly all the maintenance and repair of the modern home must be handed over to "professionals" because the homeowner has no idea what may be inside the walls or in the eves of their own home.

America has mostly given in to the pressure by buying stick made homes, built by professionals, and by calling a contractor every time something leaks, rattles or breaks. The result of this is that people no longer feel any connection to their homes. Homes have become something to trade up or flip. And, ironically, home construction is just as bad as it ever was. Cheap spec homes are put on the market everyday. They are built by day laborers, using cheap materials. Then everything is drywalled and painted "contractor-white-flat-latex", and the future buyer thinks they are getting a great house. Wrong! They are getting a house that will not last as long as their mortgage and in most cases they do not care because they are going to sell it in 5 or 10 years anyhow.

Personally, I am not buying it. I miss the days of building a home from what ever materials were available whether it be a soddy or adobe or straw bales or stone. Building a home built connection to the world and community we live in and respect for the nature of our planet. We are much poorer beings for having lost this.

More information on Handmade Homes:

Strawbale Construction:


Building with Cob:

Green Homes:

Papercrete Houses

No comments: