DIY Building Plans: Getting Ready

DIY building plans will lead to success if you make your plans realistic. Our planning page includes information on site selection, zoning, material costs, DIY physical capabilities and more.

This is an overview of the planning process. More detailed specific information on each of the topics is offered on other pages.

 “By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail."

                                                             Benjamin Franklin

Planning – the time to make changes

When we first began visualizing our dream home in the desert, the sketches we drew and the size of the house we intended to build were very different from the house in which we now live. Our final plan and design changed for one reason or another right up to pounding in the stakes outlining the house footprint and breaking ground for the trenches that would accommodate roughed-in plumbing, footings, and stem-wall.

Most of the changes occurred when we accepted the fact that if we wanted a mortgage-free house, we would have to build it ourselves. There was no place in our budget for extensive and expensive labor costs, architects, contractors, or other professionals. What we wanted done, we would have to learn and then do it. Fortunately, we live in a county that permits DIY building.

Remember that, unless you have hired an expensive architect, redoing plans might seem like a time-consuming chore, but this is the stage where your alterations are cheap. Redoing and rethinking is simply a function of time and some paper. After you have your footings poured and your walls on the way up is definitely not the time to say “This isn’t what I want.”

So start with a dream, draw it out, cost it out, assess your capabilities to build such a house, and then change if you must. We altered plans and site location on our land more than a dozen times, but we only built once – with no changes after the first shovel of dirt.

DIY building plans are the first real step toward your new home.


To Do List

  • Acquire land. We located our land after a lot of searching. Our criteria included being near (70 miles) to Tucson so we could build our home on weekends, be close to our grown kids, and yet be far enough out to avoid being caught in urban expansion. Cost, water, electricity, and view all were considered, as well.
  • Check out the legality of DIY building with the county or city planning department. We were fortunate to find our land in a county that permitted DIY building with only septic tank approval and inspection. Our zoning requirements included a building site of four acres or more and a scaled site map showing setbacks, roads, wash locations, well site, and septic tank site. Our only outsourced requirement was a “perc” or percolation test (a test to determine the absorption rate of soil for a septic drain field or "leach field.) done for us by a local licensed septic system professional.  In our case, the perc test was $400 (our only outsourced activity). After making the perc test, he then sketched out a septic and leaching field design that we followed. The DIY septic system was approved and we could build as we chose.
  • In the event that you are required to have a contractor and approvable DIY building plans, you might still be able to build a DIY home. In many parts of the country, contractors will negotiate owner involvement. Be sure of what you arrange and get it in writing. Check references and talk to previous clients for contractors and architects.
  • Decide on your building material. We investigated ICFs (insulated concrete forms) such as Rastra, adobe, straw bale, rammed earth, and cob. Ultimately, we built our first building of adobe and the final two of straw. I would now only build with straw. Steel roofing seemed our only choice due to the intense Arizona sun that can eat shingles in a few years. A tile roof was much heavier and would have meant a different truss system. Look at windows, doors, cabinets (DIY cabinets are great and inexpensive – don’t be afraid of them).
  • When you have all the data for your home, cost it out. A contractor’s desk at a building supply house can be of great assistance for the DIY builder. Bring in your DIY building plans and your specific material preferences and let them help you.  For our home, I subdivided the building into sections – foundation, straw bale walls, plumbing, electric, interior frame walls and on throughout the construction process. I broke down each component process and created an excel file for each with costs for every item. (more detail in material list page)



Once you have all your information, check your budget. If the dollars work out, check your personal capabilities. Can you, or you and your partner, do the work? If these all check out, go for it. If not, don’t be afraid to go back to the drawing board. It’s your house, your budget, and your back. Now is the time to make inexpensive changes.

When going through the planning process, it is vital to stay flexible. Don’t let pride get in the way of change. Be practical. Be frugal. Constantly question your own ideas and plans. For those building with a partner, as we did, listen to each other’s ideas and needs. Is this the simplest way? Is this the most cost effective method? Is this the best material for the roof, the floor, or any other aspect of your straw bale home? When you answer all the questions, finalize your DIY building plans.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing nothing because of indecision. Once you have reviewed techniques, materials, and other considerations, go for it! Far too many people spend their lives “getting ready”.

I hope that by reading about our journey from dream to plan to building, you will find the confidence to say, “I can do that, too!” and share the incredible personal satisfaction of sitting in your new living room and saying “I built this home.” Believe me when I say that there are few things more rewarding.



Return from DIY Building Plans to Straw Bale House

Return from DIY Building Plans to Simple Living Today Home


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