Measure Twice, Cut (the check) Once

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. – Dr. Seuss

Let me explain:When mentioning you’re building or considering building a house have you ever had people tell you that it’s cheaper to build a big house rather than a small one – or something along those lines?  I’ve heard this before – from professionals – and I’ve never understood why someone would say something like this (other than to get you to spend more money). Usually, it’s phrased something along the lines of: If you’re already spending the money to build then you might as well make everything bigger because it’s cheaper to finish a larger space than it is a smaller one.” This is a confusing suggestion – some might even say crafty one depending on who’s making it – and I’m here to tell you this piece of advice is unlikely to save you any money.

All things being equal, a small and large house will contain similar features. For instance, each one will have a kitchen with appliances, like a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, etc. If you divide the cost of these appliances by the square footage of the small house and the square footage of a large house, well, sure enough, you’ll discover that the appliances cost less per square foot in the larger house. If you do this with all the elements of the smaller house, you’ll also find that it costs more per square foot to build than the larger one. But this does not mean that the larger house is less expensive to build!

We finished the project just fine, but had some amusing experiences along the way. When it came time to pay for the extra flooring, for example, we found it a real benefit to have a truck to sell!  We had a trusty Ford F-150 with a slant six engine that ran like a beautiful thing. We used it to haul materials, tools, and to function as a shed for the whole course of the building process. It was a great truck. Shawn loved it, especially. But it was surprisingly easy to sell, even for Shawn, when the time came to pay for the flooring (or persist on plywood subfloor)!  We had to cobble together a couple of other non traditional payment methods for some other finishing work projects and we actually learned some strong skills as a result of having our budget stretched so much as a result of the bigger footprint. Drywall we were terrified of doing, really believing it to be a project best undertaken by the “experts.”  It’s amazing what requesting a bid for work can do to your skillset sometimes!  We got the bids back on the project and discovered that we were the experts we had been waiting for. We got really good at drywalling!  It’s hard work and we aren’t as fast (by a loooooong shot) as the pros, but we got the work done, learned a lot, and the end result fit our budget. Likewise with many other things.When we moved to Maine and built our first house, it turned out to be bigger than we’d expected. Admittedly, part of the reason it was bigger than expected was related to our new status as designer-builders. But a large part of it was related to our trying to avoid building “too small.”  Without even knowing how things would look, without even laying out stakes, we were already concerned that our footprint would be “too small.” Despite the worries we had about having enough room in the house for ourselves and potential resale, in the end, the house was definitely too large! And the larger space translated quite elegantly into more cost for finishing, etc. (now there’s an equation that DID work!).

For this post, I merely want to mention that a potentially more expensive higher quality product is affordable to us because the scale of our project doesn’t require a million dollar budget to accomplish.It’s really a pleasure to start a building project when you can foresee your budget clearly. Small designs truly facilitate this. Though we have designed a small house, in fact, it still seems large! But it looks “right” to us size-wise, and it’s going to be manageable from so many perspectives. We’ll be doing the work entirely ourselves – from sill plates to the roof – with some help from friends raising walls here and there. We know our budget and we don’t expect any big surprises, though we’ve of course allotted a small allowance (10%) for things unforeseen. But the extras won’t have to cover material for hundreds or thousands of square feet in size. We can use the materials we want because it’s not such a huge project that some splurges in material are impossible to afford. For example, we are choosing to insulate with sheep wool sourced from Oregon Shepherd. We’ve always been interested in wool as an insulator and now we have a home to try it out on. On our first house, it would be way too expensive for our personal budget. But with our design, it’s affordable, and in fact only a little more expensive than using an alternative we weren’t too crazy about. By the way, we’ll be updating the blog with a couple of posts specifically about our experiences with Oregon Shepherd and a more in depth exploration of why we chose it, so stay tuned.

To me, small is beautiful. It’s been said before, it’s going to be said forever, at least by some of us. Small houses give people the ability to handle building projects on their own, finish projects in a reasonable time, make the building project financially attainable for more people, and allow for the incorporation of the quality things you’d most like to see and experience in a home. And if you exceed your budget while building a small house, you probably won’t have to sell your truck in order to cover the gap (I think these are great pluses, and not just because we miss seeing our big green truck and are sometimes humorously hauling materials in a compact sedan!).

I probably could have written this blog entry in a more concise fashion. If I were to rewrite it, it would read as follows:  Some people (even people who love you and are excited for you) may warn you, with something akin to dread in their voices, not to build “too small.” Others may make baffling statements that sound like bad math equations (which they are): “If you’re going to build, you might as well build BIG because it’s cheaper in the long run.” My advice: trust yourself first and build what feels right to you.

Take care of that, and the rest will follow, from mudsills to ridgeline.