Who Does What...during construction of a natural building?

A question came up during a recent workshop that seems worth exploring further...Who does each task when constructing a natural building?  The answer is, of course:  it depends.  (If you know me, you saw that coming a mile away!)  What depends are the goals & priorities of the Owner...

       ...do you want/need to finish construction quickly?
       ...is cost saving paramount?
       ...do you want to participate during construction?  (and to what extent?)
       ...would you like to hold workshops or work parties?
       ...is high quality craftsmanship important to you?

And then creating a structure for who does what that best suits your particular goals.

Strawbale home built by a contractor -- high quality all around, but also higher cost
More project pics here:  Will & Wendy's Home Photos

So let's back up a bit and define the different roles that get you from an idea, to a home you can live in.

First, you need a design for what you are building.  That design should be suited to your climate and the piece of land you build on.  Some jurisdictions will allow you to draw up your own design.  If that feels overwhelming, you can purchase pre-designed natural home plans or you can hire a designer/architect to create a custom design.

Second, decide who is going to be the coordinator for the project.  In conventional construction, this is the general contractor.  This person makes sure construction occurs in the proper order and makes sure any trades (electrician, plumber, etc.) and inspections are scheduled at the proper times.  This can be done by the Owner!  In which case I have one recommendation...if you have never built anything before, do some research on contracting skills before you take this on & I recommend creating a mentor-type relationship with a local builder to help in case you get stuck head-scratching.

Third, decide who will do the natural building!  You can hire a professional to do some or all of the natural building.  You can host workshops led by an experienced natural builder.  Or you can lead work parties with a group of friends & family.  On this one, be realistic about how much of your time you can dedicate to sweat equity.  Be realistic about your expectations for finesse of finishes, especially if you have minimal construction experience.  And I strongly recommend working with a natural builder, at least on a consulting basis, to help problem-solve anything unusual that may come up (and to give you peace of mind).

Fourth, remember the specific trades.  These include excavation, concrete work (foundation), plumbing, electrical, any wood structure (framing, timber-framing), trim work, cabinet installation, etc.  Be realistic if each of these is something you could do, considering skill-level as well as time.  And note that in many regions, some of the specifics must be installed by licensed tradespeople (most commonly this includes electrical and plumbing).

Strawbale studio built mostly with workshops & sweat equity by the Owners -- less expensive, with a hand-built aesthetic.  More project pics here:  Beth's Cottage photos

What scenario is right for your project?

There are many many ways to structure a construction project in terms of who does what.  Everything from pure Owner/Builder to hiring a General Contractor to do it all...or...a hybrid collaboration between the Owner and a Builder.  If your builder does not have experience with natural building, you likely also will need support with strawbale or cob or cordwood or whatever natural building materials you have chosen to use.  The bottom line, is that you should expect to be more involved during construction, and this is probably one of the things that is drawing you toward building naturally in the first place.

But how do you structure a scenario that makes the most sense for you??

One of my favorite pieces of advice when undergoing construction is that you can choose TWO of the following three priorities:

  1. speed
  2. low cost
  3. quality

So, to decide what type of construction collaboration is going to be right for your project, choose which 2 of these priorities are most important to you.

If you choose speed & low cost...then you are a good candidate to act as your own contractor and host work parties for the natural building features.  This scenario puts a burden on you to be informed...about construction timelines, about finding tradespeople as needed, about the proper way to install your natural building materials, about finding materials, about what you want, etc.  What you may not be able to control with lots of unskilled labor is the quality of the final finishes.  You will dedicate maximum time input, so be realistic that you have a chunk of a few months that you can dedicate pretty exclusively to your construction project.  Your payoff is that you have your building completed quickly and for a minimum financial investment.

If you choose low cost & quality...then you may still want to act as your own general contractor, but you are a good candidate to hire a professional natural builder to lead your workshops.  You may also want to explore using salvage building materials and take the time to really hunt for items you love aesthetically.  This scenario requires patience.  You will still likely contribute a lot of sweat equity during construction, especially fine-tuning the natural building elements.  You may want to personalize the space by sculpting walls or you may invest in some more time-consuming finishes (mosaic, tadelat, polished clay with wax buffed in...)  Some weeks you may feel like you are not making any progress.  But you will get there, and your payoff is that you have a beautiful building for less money than you would have spent if someone else had done all of the work.
For more tips on salvage hunting, see "One Person's Waste...is another's treasure"

If you choose speed & quality...then you likely will hire a general contractor to oversee your project.  You may still want to participate during the natural building portions of construction.  And I would definitely recommend hiring a professional natural builder to lead workshops or to train your contractor's crew.  In this scenario, your energy is focused more on decisions...aesthetic choices, how/when you want to participate with the natural building (and coordinating that with your contractor), what you want your finishes to look like.  If you find you don't have tons of time to dedicate to the natural building or you can't quite muster the level of skill to make you plaster look like you want, then you have a building crew that can take care of it.  This scenario will cost you more, since you are paying for more people-labor.  Your payoff is a beautifully crafted building with exactly the quality of finishes that you enjoy.

There are obviously hybrids of each of these, but hopefully this helps you clarify what you can & want to do for your natural building project.  And most important...have fun!

Strawbale & cordwood home with lots of salvage materials built by the Owners -- less expensive, but more time-consuming to build.  More project pics here:  Scot & Linda's Home Photos