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Land before design, or design before land?  RSS feed

 
kristy blockly
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Hi all, 
In about 4-5 years, we'll be ready to start building our own home (strawbale or adobe, not totally sure yet.  We're in SoCal. Using all cash.  Considering building in Ventura County or San Diego County.  Want to hire an architect and perhaps a contractor to supervise, but we want to do a lot of the work ourselves.)  Right now I'm in research and savings mode, but not sure what my first real steps should be. For example, I'm not sure if it's wise to hire the architect and design a home before I buy the land, or buy the land first then do all the design and hiring?  Do you have a simple checklist of the main steps I need to take in the correct order?  Or maybe a blog post that chronicles the process of building a home, from the planning stages to the execution?
Thanks! 
 
Travis Johnson
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You should buy the land first, then observe the land for AT LEAST a year to see where all the changes occur so that you orient your home just right to take in all the benefits that could possibly come from such a location. I suggest even longer. That is the issue with 99% of the homes built in the last 50 years; they were built with the concept of curb appeal instead of situating them where it was best for the occupants of the house, or the house itself. If the land did not site the house well enough then... well...just use heavy equipment to reshape where the house sat and make it conform. They got it all wrong!

I would nix the idea too of an architect unless CA laws require it, I know CA has some strange building rules though. If you do that it won't be your house, but there because that is what you are paying them for...to design A HOUSE, you want to build YOUR HOUSE and those can be diametrically opposed things. So if it was me I would design my own home and research, research, research and draw up your own plans and situate it well on your well observed land. Unfortunately the right way to do things is always the hardest and in this case its waiting. And in this society where we have a "I want it now" mentality it is hard.

Can I back up what I say? I think so, 25 years ago I started my house and while it will never be done, and I have a lot of things I would do differently; I started out at 400 square feet and it is now 3500 square feet, built from materials off my farm, and completely paid for. At 42 I am also retired and signed up yesterday to do some farm missions in Moldova.
 
Susan Quinlan
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1st, you have time to research. Although it may seem like a long wait, you can save yourself in the long run. There are postings for picking out land before purchase.

I dont agree about the architect. Better yet, one who specializes in natural building. There are two homes a few miles from me that are rammed earth. The architect designed and built in the 70's. They are awesome!

Having to redo  or make adjustments to a project like this after starting  would have been a mess. An expensive mess. Forty years later the people living there are happy, cozy, and everything is angled and set right.

Good luck on your journey and keep heart. Taking time with dreams is Sooooo hard.  Reach out to others on this path for support in the meantime. Good Luck!
 
kristy blockly
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So helpful, thanks guys!  I definitely see the wisdom in observing the land for a while first.  I am still leaning towards finding a straw bale architect.  I suppose the best architects will take your ideas and turn them into a home that meshes your dreams with their expertise.  Also thinking they will know how to design to get permitted most easily.  I'm also thinking I'd like to hire a straw bale contractor (like Simple Constructs) to oversee and kick off the actual building.  Perhaps after a few more years of researching, my confidence in my abilities will be a lot higher and maybe I can do without a huge professional team.  We have a good sized budget for this project and want to build something that will last and hopefully resell well someday. 

I appreciate any more tips about the "correct" order of steps.  Thanks!
 
Tyler Ludens
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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If you have the money, I suggest hiring a permaculture designer with a good reputation to help you design the land and house.  Even perhaps hire a permaculture designer to help you select the right piece of land, that is best suited to a permanent regenerative design.  We didn't know enough to do any of this when we got our place and built our house and it has been ongoing inconvenience, sometimes severe and expensive.  Working with a complete design is, I think, the most important thing.

Here are some links to helpful design information:  https://permies.com/t/55751/permaculture-design/Permaculture-design-basics
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 227
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Neither!

The land you get will shape the specifics of your house, but it's possible to figure out roughly what features you want and roughly how they relate, well before you settle on a site.  Approximate size, number of rooms of each type, heating source, etc. are all things you can figure out ahead of time.  Since you've identified the area you want to buy land in, you already know what the climate there is like, so you can figure out what kinds of materials would be appropriate and figure out what they might cost.

In turn, as you figure out what features are important to you (and what kinds of sites would work well with those), those conclusions can help you pick out the right site.  For example, if you are set on a one-story building, then a steeply sloped property may not be the best for you.

Waiting can be frustrating but having time to mull it over will probably be a good thing - there are a TON of factors to consider here. 

If you don't already have a copy, I highly recommend getting the A Pattern Language - I found it really helpful in thinking about how different elements of homes relate to one another, and what elements and combinations of elements really make a home work.

Good luck, and have fun!
 
Chris Wells
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Location: Zone 2b, Canadian Rockies
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Steven's right on the money. Draft your house and refine it to the best of your ability first. You'll learn a lot about what you want and do not want. Your plans will change, radically I expect.

This was the approach I took; as my plan evolved, I was able to disqualify potential sites that lacked required features. The result was a clear understanding of what land and amenities were essential to my plan.

Had I purchased the land prior to planning, I'd have made a poor purchase decision.
 
Joy Oasis
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Just wanted to add, that Ventura county did approve natural house building for Quail Springs community, so you might have easier time getting it approved there, although I do not know how it is in San Diego county.
 
Peter Ellis
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Location: Central New Jersey
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I think it is a neither and both situation

Your house design will influence the land choice. Your land choice will influence your house design.

My wife and I have been sketching house designs and brainstormng about what we want in our final home for a few years now. We knew we were heading to Michigan (back home for her) and that set certain parameters on house design. We knew we wanted the house to have southern exposure, setting certain parameters on the land.

We've gone to contract on twenty wooded acres, part of which is relatively elevated and has southeasterly exposure. The house will go on that portion, someplace..

We want to build with cob and roundwood timber framing, both of which applied some pressure to land choices. But now we need some time on the land to learn how it works, everything from where the wind and water run to whether local hunters see this plot as part of the state game lands in backs onto.

We didn't wait for land to Start designing our house and our house design was important in our choice of land, but we cannot finish our house design without spending time getting to know this piece of land.
 
kristy blockly
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That's good to know!  Thank you! 
 
Levente Andras
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Location: Harghita County, Transylvania, Romania
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Having behind me the experience of 2 land purchases, and 2 houses built on the two plots thus purchased (one construction project still ongoing, but nearing its final stage), I agree with Steven's advice above.

I highly recommend Your Engineered House by Rex Roberts which you can download from the Soil And Health library.
http://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/0302hsted/030211Roberts/YEHtoc.htm

I've read that book from cover to cover. Parts of Chapter 1 and the entirety of Chapter 2 are dedicated to choosing the right site for your house. Very relevant to your case, I think.

Based on my experience, you can start dreaming up your ideal home well before you find the suitable land.  However, in your search for a suitable location, you may stumble upon a good site which opens up some unforeseen opportunities, while it also closes some avenues which, up to that point, you thought were of vital importance.  Since a "perfect" location may be impossible to find or afford, you will then learn to adapt and compromise.  (Actually, I've come to realise that the art of design is actually the art of compromises.) Some of your original assumptions and plans will be thrown out of the window, while solutions that you had formerly rejected will need to be reconsidered.
 
Joshua Myrvaagnes
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Location: Massachusetts, 6b, urban, nearish coast, 39'x60' minus the house, mostly shady north side, + lead.
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Start with the land--it's the first thing.  Land was here before homes.  The land speaks to you about what the way to shelter yourself, nourish yourself, fulfill your purpose.

But while you're seeking land and letting the land find you, you can also brainstorm and dream.

In the next few years the Open Building Institute's really ecological, really low-cost-to-build, community-involved and flexible design houses should be ready to build.  This is one option . Their design software (open source) is one thing you could use to brainstorm and play around with ideas, try out things.  It's a way of being involved in the architecture.  Opensourcecology.org  i think is the website where they're posting the info.  If it turns out that natural building is not going to be allowed legally in your situation, then at least you can build modularly and flexibly and with locally sourced materials.

 
Gerald Henderson
Posts: 14
Location: Grand Rapids, MI
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Peter Ellis...
Where are you looking in Michigan?  My wife and I are looking to build in the Grand Rapids area and have not been able to find any contractors willing to work with strawbale or cob.  Any ideas about what the code is or if you have any contacts in the area would be much appreciated!
 
Peter Ellis
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Location: Central New Jersey
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Gerald Henderson wrote:Peter Ellis...
Where are you looking in Michigan?  My wife and I are looking to build in the Grand Rapids area and have not been able to find any contractors willing to work with strawbale or cob.  Any ideas about what the code is or if you have any contacts in the area would be much appreciated!


The property we have found is in Allegan County, maybe 45 minutes south of Grand Rapids. So far I have not been able to learn much about what local code standards are (especially in application) - the township's webpage basically refers you to the County, the County has little to say that I have found, and the State says that the local township is responsible for code.... it's a bit confusing.

We have not been looking at contractors yet, partly because we really are planning on building ourselves, literally, and partly because we are roughly 16 hours away.

Wish I could be more help, but we're not very far into the adventure ourselves
 
Gerald Henderson
Posts: 14
Location: Grand Rapids, MI
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Nice, that's awesome!  Unfortunately for us, my construction skills are nowhere near the level of leading a build, so I have to rely on somebody else for the biggest investment of our lives... sorta nerve-racking.  We may go with a modular "eco-friendly" house although I know it's nowhere near as small of a footprint as cob or straw.  I'd love to see some of the designs you're thinking of to deal with the intense changes in seasons, lake effect snow, etc.  We also would love to connect with fellow permies so when you guys relocate feel free to send me a message or something and maybe we could come camp out and lend a hand with your build!
 
C. Letellier
Posts: 228
Location: Greybull WY north central WY zone 4 bordering on 3
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The first step is to do your own personal design work.  What are your goals?  How can you best reach them?  Preliminary design of all buildings done yourself.  Then the list of questions you need answered when buying land.  Utilities, water rights, mineral rights, taxes and so on.  Once you have done all the preliminary then you can go looking for land because now you have an idea of what you want.  You won't likely find everything you want and may get some things you didn't expect with the land.  Now revamp your plans in light of the new information.

 
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