Why You Should Build Your Own Home

Teaching people how to design and build their own homes makes some architects nervous. But John Connell, Yale-trained architect and founding director of Yestermorrow Design/Build School in Warren, Vermont, has been teaching prospective home owners the essentials of home design and construction for 20 years. He feels that such efforts not only broaden the market for architects because clients are more informed, but also connect people to their communities.

Building one’s own home was an honorable tradition for hundreds of years before World War II, when the United States was an agrarian society with intact nuclear families who believed that their farm buildings would be there forever. Even professional builders assumed that whatever they built would be around for a long time. Consequently, they used the best materials and tools, and the results were a tasteful expression of their lifestyles and culture.

“We seem to have given up all the elegance,” Connell says. The shift was prompted by urbanization and a housing shortage after World War II.

At that juncture, rather than thinking of them as solutions to living situations, we started dealing with houses as products: commodities assembled, acquired, financed, and paid for as other merchandise is. The more people saw their houses as products, the more they relegated fabrication and maintenance to professionals. Today, many don’t even know how a light switch on the wall relates to the fixture on the ceiling. They have no idea where their water comes from or where their waste goes. “The disconnect between the building and the occupant is so complete that most people are mystified if not intimidated,” Connell says.

When veterans left the service after the war and started climbing corporate ladders, they were subjected to endless transfers. People began to view their homes as transitory and, in their drive for material achievement, relegated family and house to second and third priority. Today the average household moves approximately every five years. Not surprisingly, the design and construction of their current shelter has become unimportant to a large percentage of Americans.

“That’s the backdrop against which I entered the picture,” says Connell, who wrote Homing Instinct: Using Your Lifestyle to Design & Build Your Home (McGraw Hill reissue, 1999). “After graduation, I went to work in an architect’s office. But I never really wanted to be an architect. My undergraduate training was in fine arts and I view buildings as a great artistic medium to work in.”

Connell learned in school how to organize clients: how to determine their needs and how to create a program. But invariably the office he was working in would design something wildly different from what clients thought they wanted.

“When the clients saw what we had done, they’d be totally shocked. . . . They’d leave and we’d modify it a little. But basically we were trying to sell a zebra as a horse with stripes. We were always trying to get them to accept our interpretation, which was only slightly informed by what they wanted.”

As Connell witnessed this largely fruitless exchange, it occurred to him that people should know how to design and build their own homes. Otherwise, they blindly hired professionals they distrusted, and the professionals ended up viewing themselves as underappreciated artists. The result: an endless stream of disappointed clients and disillusioned architects who find residential work too annoying to bother with.

“Yestermorrow was born out of the idea that it would be good to redefine the architect as a teacher and the home owner as a student and re-establish a trustful relationship,” he says.

Yestermorrow teachers were good at explaining to their students how to place a building on a site, how to put it together, and what materials to use. Yet Connell could see that intuitive owner/builders were better than trained architects at solving the core design problem–how to make an object that fits the living patterns of the user.

But design and construction today are more complicated than they once were. “Now [people] have to know how to build a superinsulated, energy-efficient, nontoxic, appropriate home that allows good ventilation and is magical, while enhancing the spot they have chosen to build on and expressing their dreams of who they are.”

After two decades, Connell’s biggest frustration is dealing with people who cannot disconnect their home from its investment value. When he encourages them to create something that expresses what their site is all about, who they are, and how they want to live, they too often answer that they certainly want their new house to be bigger than their neighbor’s.

These days the Yestermorrow teachers ask new students, “How do you want to live?” The answer invariably includes dreams they can’t afford. But very few people have ever asked themselves this question. The current American fashion is to buy whatever you can afford and shoehorn your life into it. When you can afford more, you sell what you have, buy more, and shoehorn your life into that. Your life thus becomes a reflection of whatever you can afford.

“But after a week at Yestermorrow, people become articulate about . . . what they want out of their life, and what they are willing to give up,” Connell says. “That is the beginning of making a design, because design is about personal intention and priorities. If you can convert the things they want to acquire into the activities they want to engage in, that’s a step in the right direction.”

Connell is trying to get his students–some of whom build their own houses, while others hire a builder–to become more materialistic, but in a different way. He encourages people to put what is most important to them into more durable materials: a greenhouse for gardeners, for example. “You can put your passion into fixed, external, material form as a way to affect more people than just yourself. In the end, we want to live the biggest lives we can live, in a community of interesting, vibrant people.”

When people learning to build homes spend months sketching, drafting, and making models, they become invested. If they then take the final step, actually assembling materials and converting them into an expression of who they are, they’ll get increasingly attached to their building and site.

“In five years, when they are making more money and it’s time to buy something bigger, they will stop and consider how much they have put into this house,” he says. Once they are connected to their home and place, they start talking to the neighbors; then they’re serving on the planning commission or the school board and they know where their waste is going and what’s in the air.

“As soon as you commit to a place,” he says, “you are concerned about the community and the people and the ecosystem. And to me that is the core of how, through designing and building your own home, you solve all of what’s wrong in the world.”

From Designer/Builder (May 1999). Subscriptions: $28/yr. (12 issues) from 2405 Maclovia Lane, Santa Fe, NM 87505.

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