DIY Building: Skills and Attitude


Many DIY building guides, including ours, can tell you how to build your own home. Here we also discuss the personal skills and attitudes we found necessary for successful DIY building.

So what do you need to know to build your DIY straw bale home? Most important for us was the ability to see the straw bale house as a system. We would ask ourselves how one facet of the process related to another. This helped us enormously in setting up the sequence of tasks we had to accomplish to finish the house.

It also meant that we could purchase material in a logical sequence and avoid having to buy it all at once. This was incredibly important as we chose not to take out a construction loan or a mortgage.

Instead, we continued working as teachers and paid for material as we built. This meant a bit of “belt tightening” during the process, but living now in a debt-free home makes living a bit frugally while we built well worthwhile.


 DIY Building: Our Skills on Day One

When we began the process, I was fairly familiar with a number of hand tools. Some tools, like a router or a bale needle, neither of us had spent much time using.

In other words, we considered ourselves light on experience, but able and willing to learn. We were average people with some basic tools. The tools we have now were purchased, for the most part, during the process of building.

I wish I had had a list of the tools I would need before I started. It would have meant fewer trips to town. Our tool acquisition was reactive. A need would arise and we would buy a tool. Lots of wasted time and travel to the hardware store.

Specifically, I had had some exposure to electricity during my hitch in the US Navy, way back in the 1960s. As a kid, I had worked as a carpenter’s helper for a few months in the late 1950s. Before that, I worked a couple summers on a farm in Minnesota and learned to handle a variety of hand tools. But that experience was 50 years in the past.

Barbara had some familiarity with basic hand tools, but the use of power tools was new territory. We had worked together in building decks and laying tile in our Minnesota home. I mention these experiences to share the knowledge and experience level I had as we began the building of our DIY home.


DIY Building: The Learning Curve

The skills most likely to be uncomfortable for many DIY builders are electrical and plumbing installation. Your local codes or your personal level of discomfort might lead you to want a licensed contractor involved in these areas.

Even if you do, it is possible to do much of the work yourself under their guidance and with the help of a good guide book or two

 We were fortunate in having a building code that allows an owner/builder to do her/his own work (with the exception of a septic system inspection) in every facet of construction.

Otherwise, read books – again, we will suggest some. Try things out. Help someone who is building and knows how to acquire skill. Talk to successful straw bale builders in your area.

The general skills you will learn include carpentry; concrete and masonry work; plastering – adobe or stucco, probably; roofing; HVAC; electrical, plumbing, and more.

All of these skills can be learned through books, you tube demos, helping others, and experimentation. As discussed elsewhere, we built small buildings first to help ease our learning curve. Read, practice, be patient and flexible and you can do this.


DIY Building: Attitudes

Even with some building skills and a shop full of tools, attitude can determine the success or failure of the project. It isn’t hard to list the attitudes, but it’s a challenge to take them to heart and apply them when the sun is hot and the work is hard.

The first question to ask yourself concerning a DIY straw bale home is “How much do I want to have this happen?”

In our case, we knew we wanted to live in the desert and we wanted to be debt free. To achieve that we were willing to devote most weekends and vacations for the last few years we worked at a job to building.

Looking back over the past few years, I believe that Barbara and I enjoy the life and the relationship we now have because of what we shared in this crazy building process.

Working on our home with Barbara was a phenomenal experience. Not that there wasn’t an emotional learning curve. We made lots of mistakes and had lots of successes and learned about ourselves and each other from both.

From beginning, we found that our plans and processes changed constantly. In some cases, we made general plans, but the final details and measurements didn’t emerge until it was time to build.

As an example, until we had the final coat of adobe plaster on the walls of the kitchen, we didn’t know the exact space available for the cabinets.

Flexibility, resilience, patience, compromise, and problem solving will be a daily part of the process.

If you get locked in to one concept or procedure and it doesn’t fit with your partner’s paradigm, you are probably in for some tough times.  It is supremely important to learn to listen and try to understand another point of view. Be guided by the process and the building.

Having said all that cautionary and scary stuff about the risks, it’s only fair to share the good side.

After all the sweat and sore muscles, we now live in what our daughter-in-law (a ceramic artist) calls a “hand-crafted piece of art.” While building and watching each stage of the project emerge, the day’s work ended with a grin, a high five, and a big hug.


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