Issue #14 December 2005

Open source collaboration meets construction

Rebecca and Mark Fernandez are building their own home from the foundation up.

Two hundred years ago, there were very few proprietary home builders. Most construction was done in a collaborative, community-based environment. Over time, construction has moved toward the proprietary model, and legislation reflects this trend. Building codes are aimed away from owner-builders, and banks have adopted policies to discourage them. The world of construction, it seems, has left behind the idea of accessible, open source building and wholeheartedly embraced proprietary models.

My husband Mark and I grew up around construction and were interested in building our own home. We saw how many companies designed house plans—they charge upwards of $900 for the blueprints and include a clause restricting their use to a single house. Want to build that house again? Be prepared to pony up another $900. Proprietary floor plans restrict inspiration because you cannot legally use them as a springboard for new ideas. Construction loans and building codes are designed with giant builders in mind. Hope to build something unusual, like a straw-bale home? Good luck.


Initially, we planned to get a construction loan and do all of the labor on the house ourselves. Mark is a plumbing contractor and had worked in new construction for several years. I knew there were plenty of great Internet forums, library books, and other inexpensive resources where we could ask questions and glean tips. We frequented places like the Fine Homebuilding Magazine forums, where professionals and tinkerers alike gather to exchange tips, ask questions, and tell horror stories. For an owner-builder, the Building Science Corporation website also contained a wealth of information about new techniques and materials.

Our optimism was quickly squashed by five banks and one credit union, all of which insisted that we needed a general contractor. Add an additional $15,000 for the general contractor's fee and forget about doing any of your own trade work—all the trades would have to be done by licensed and bonded laborers. The few banks that were willing to let us do our own contracting placed heavy restrictions on the project's completion date.

We were faced with the comparably attractive option of building with our spare time and funds. We discovered 1.45 acres of what was once part of a tobacco farm—now a dismal, overgrown field of brush, fire-red clay, and a seemingly infinite number of disease-carrying ticks. I barely noticed the ancient fence posts or the swarming yellow jackets, honing in on the tiny cardboard sign where someone had scrawled, "Owner-Financing Available." The appeal of avoiding yet another discussion in a banker's office was great. One private assessment, title and zoning check, and pile of paperwork later, we were proud owners of the county's ugliest piece of property.

Rebecca watches as the bulldozer clears their land.

We hired a local bulldozer operator to clear the brush away, which had the better part of a ten year advantage on the land. For the tidy sum of $500, we now had a beautiful, flat lot, bordered in the back by old forest, and behind that, a lush field with distant cows. It was substantially more attractive than the pre-packaged lots the bank had offered.

We purchased a giant blue International Code Book at the local book retailer and looked into the general restrictions that we would face before we began to sketch floor plans. We did not think to check online first, so we were unaware of the landmark 2002 case, Veeck v. Southern Building Code Congress International, Inc. A renegade citizen in a northern Texas town copied the local building codes, deleted the copyright information, and uploaded them to his website. A federal court ultimately ruled that local building codes, when binding upon the public as laws or ordinances, cannot validly hold copyrights—even if they were originally proprietary material. Enforceable building codes must be in the public domain. In response to this ruling, many individuals were testing their newfound freedoms by making their local building codes available online.

Planning ahead

We searched for an open source version of a house plan designer, but did not find a suitable one. I read rave reviews of CYCAS, an open source German CAD and architecture program, but gave up after several weeks of unsuccessful download attempts. An old slashdot thread offered several suggestions, including the use of 3D gaming software, and although I was interested in designing a home that would be safe from the undead and invading alien masses, this did not offer much for the would-be designer who just needed to make sure her door frames were far enough from corner walls. A search at sourceforge turned up the once promising but now inactive G-House 3D, available in a generic tarball that I was unable to successfully compile or install. A more experienced Linux user may have found the four-sentence readme file adequate.

QCad had a respectable library of architectural parts that may eventually prove useful. However, it needed a large number of library parts to rival the inexpensive, proprietary floor plan design programs. For example, QCad does not yet have a simple way to draw interior and exterior walls with inherited standard depths. However, the affordability (starting at $28) of this excellent open source software shows a lot of promise for future developments and extended libraries.

Many tests, like this one for septic, must take place before construction can begin.

QCad surpassed some of the proprietary alternatives, such as LinuxCAD. The LinuxCAD website was difficult to navigate, appeared to offer only an expensive subscription, and was so bold as to offer this broken link to its "Demo version" (note the URL). I found only one other proprietary home design program for Linux, a program with very poor reviews and with which one user concluded that it was impossible to include any doors in your floor plans.

We made the difficult decision to purchase proprietary software from Punch!, which served our needs for a reasonable $70. It was not available for Linux, so we dug out our dusty old eMac, booted it up, opened an ancient copy of Virtual PC, and installed the new design program. It was surprisingly adequate.

In my search for floor plans, I was confused by their high cost. Even plans offered by non-profit organizations were expensive. A volunteer at one builders' association explained that most associations have to contract with an architect to create building plans. The architect retains the rights to the plans, even when the design is a highly collaborative effort. Purchasing the full rights would cost most associations more than $5,000 per set of plans. Habitat for Humanity could not help us with our project by offering their floor plans; they did not own the rights to most of them.

Open source home construction, then, begins with the rights to the plans. We decided to design our own. Especially helpful was Building an Affordable House: Trade Secrets for High-Value, Low-Cost Construction by Fernando Pages Ruiz. Although he sells proprietary floor plans, the author shares his design philosophies and tips for cutting costs (but not corners). Habitat for Humanity: How to Build a House by Larry Haun helped to detail the basic steps. A simple, four-corner house, with no dormers and a basic roof would be the least expensive and easiest to build. Mark spent days working our ideas into blueprints with his new software, then weeks adjusting them to his perfectionist wife's standards.

He developed a blog, then a photo journal, and finally a full-fledged website to document our progress and make our floor plans, expenses list, successes, and failures available on the Internet. We selected the loosest standards of a Creative Commons license, because we wanted people to be able to use and modify our floor plans while still retaining our basic goal: home building as an option for anyone on any budget. We also uploaded other floor plan designs that we created, in case they were inspiring or useful to others.

The temporary power pole.

Ready? Steady? Go!

We submitted our building plans, prepared our driveway and septic tests, and began to research our temporary power pole. We visited several hardware stores until we found an employee who was willing to tell us a little about what we needed to do for the installation. (It is a greater liability to give someone potentially faulty instructions than to let them electrocute themselves without your guidance.) After peeking in some power boxes on other job sites, we constructed the pole, dug several feet into the ground, plopped it into place, and ran our wiring.

We failed the first inspection. After some adjustments (and with the inspector's help), we passed the second. To our horror, we discovered a discarded temporary power pole and box just down the street, where a new house had been built. Had we stopped by just a few days earlier, we could have paid our neighbor $2, thrown his old power box into the back of our truck, and been saved most of the cost of this particular step. Our neighbor, of course, had no idea what his general contractor had paid for the discarded, dented grey box left to rust in his backyard.

After the power pole, we rented a bulldozer to grade our property for the slab foundation and to dig the footings. Here, we ran into our first major problem—the "flat" land actually sloped almost four feet from one corner of the house to the other. This required many extra hours on the bulldozer to correct. When that problem was solved, we built our foundation forms, only to realize that we had measured incorrectly. They had to be raised a full four inches.

We hired a well contractor, who drilled for water and agreed that Mark could install the pump. He helpfully specified the proper height. We paid the driller and purchased the pump from a local supply house. Mark and his father worked the following Saturday afternoon to set the new pump. We passed on the typical hundred-dollar plastic well cover and put an old 5 gallon plastic bucket over the well instead. The inspector chuckled, but did not bother to consult the code book.

Pouring the foundation before spreading it by hand.

Several thousand dollars later, we had successfully poured our own foundation. The finish was not as smooth as Mark had hoped for, and we missed out on a trip to Florida for the privilege of smoothing concrete... but there is nothing quite so empowering as the feeling you get when you realize that you have built the foundation that your home will rest on.

Many of the folks who have collaborated with us on this project brought an incredible amount of unanticipated creativity. One friend saw our roofing plans and mentioned an easy, inexpensive way to add a second floor. A neighbor recommended an alternative framing style. A builder's association in Seattle sent us a free copy of their proprietary plans to assist us in developing our own blueprints. A coworker's wife learned of our project and confessed her love of construction, begging to come help.

When we began our project, we thought we would be lone builders, striking out into the unknown, fighting a world of proprietary systems. Instead, we found a surprising number of people who were intrigued by our dream and were eager to share their ideas and labor.

About the author

Rebecca Fernandez is a web developer at Red Hat. She's a long-time collector of Mother Earth News magazine and is interested in all things crunchy. She's really into DIY projects, chickens, and pygmy dairy goats.