Building Techniques for Owner-Builders

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As you develop your design, take the time to study, evaluate, and compare various materials and techniques of construction so that you will have some sense of the potentials of the various approaches. Each type of construction has its own “vocabulary” of building elements, so your design may be expressed in different ways. In this section, we will introduce some “alternative” materials and building techniques, as well as modifications of more conventional ones.

One of the best ways of getting information about these building techniques is by visiting examples of them and talking with the owners. You should supplement these visits with readings from books and construction periodicals, keeping a record of your observations in a notebook.

Budget limitations, site considerations, and aesthetics are all important in selecting a construction system. Pay attention to your intuition as well. You may get a clear insight into the possibility of an earth-sheltered solar house when exploring a steep south-facing slope of your land. If your region is forest-rich, you may see timber framing or log building as attractive approaches. Also think about your choices in the context of aesthetic compatibility with existing nearby buildings. Spending quiet time on your site often brings up the kind of subjective clues that, along with your objective cost and energy analysis, will help you make a final choice you’ll be happy with over the long term.


There is some confusion currently about whether or not we are still having an energy crisis. We hear how at present there is an energy glut, that prices are holding or may even decrease, and that new sources of energy will be developed—probably. All of this talk serves to blur some of the issues.

The price of fossil fuels has risen dramatically since the 1950s. Can you remember the “gasoline wars” of the ‘50s when a gallon of gasoline cost 15 cents? Since then, the price has increased almost 1,000 %. Our population has, since World War II, increased about 50 %, while our consumption of electrical energy (generated primarily from fossil fuels) has increased by 600 % and our total energy consumption has increased 250 %. In U.S. residential and commercial sectors, each person is using 2 tons of oil annually.

The buildings we live and work in consume about one-third of our national energy budget. It may be a surprise to realize that our present buildings alone consume about twice the electricity that was used for all purposes in this country 30 years ago. New buildings that don't use energy wisely not only increase the pressure on our energy supply lines but also result in more pollution to the planet as a whole. The time is fast approaching when the combustion of fossil fuels will meet strong political resistance as the reality of the “greenhouse effect” in the atmosphere is documented.

The real energy crisis is still at hand, unperceived by most of us because of the masking effect of current economic manipulations. The earth’s finite supply of fossil fuels is steadily diminishing. Fortunately, individuals can make a real difference by making informed decisions about energy use in their own homes. Properly planned energy conservation strategies actually pay for themselves in lower utility bills. Most of the work involved in executing these strategies requires little technical skill and is highly satisfying to do yourself.

In our view, all new buildings must be designed with energy conservation as a primary goal. The challenge for owner-builders is to create energy-efficient houses that will make the most cost-effective use of the building systems they choose. A myriad of new building products are now available that can help reduce fuel consumption — we will examine some of these later in this section and in section 5. The main point to stress now is that there are many simple, commonsense ways to build a home that fulfills all your needs without consuming great quantities of nonrenewable energy.

ill. 4-1: The use of fossil fuels began only recently, in historical terms. The consumption of fuel quickly skyrocketed and may soon deplete the earth’s total reserves.

ill. 4-2: Energy-efficient dwellings have a long history. The Anasazi people built villages in huge caves in the Southwest. Designed to capture the low-angle rays of the winter sun and to be shaded from the high-angle summer sun, these dwellings were also protected from the northerly winter winds by the mesa above.

ill. 4-3: Distribution of heat loss in a typical house.

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