Why build a house? (part 1)

Mkr.House in progress

“People think building a house will save their marriage — but, just like having kids, it won’t. Building a house can’t be to fix things, it must be to make a good thing better.” — My real estate agent

This is the first in a series I’ll be writing about my home-building adventures. I’ll be including lots of details, photos and financials as a future guide to myself and anyone else brave enough to embark on this journey.

Why?

Before embarking on your journey, it’s worth writing down your 2–5 core principles. Why are you building a house? What should the house achieve to make it worth your money and time?

Over the next 1–3 years, you will make thousands of decisions. The only way you’ll end up with a cohesive house (and not die of decision fatigue) is to establish your principles first and share them with everyone on your team (architect, builder, interior designer, contractors, etc) so that you can all row in the same direction.

Don’t even look for land until you’ve settled on your principles, since you might very well discover that your original idea (e.g. suburb) doesn’t coincide with your goals (e.g. helping the environment, since you’d be forced to drive everywhere).

You might also find that you can achieve your goals without going through the stress of designing + building from scratch, because there are houses on the market that achieve your goals. For example, there are plenty of good options for sale that provide space for a family of 4 and a small workshop.

The one Why you should avoid like the plague: “owning instead of renting will save me money.” My next post in the series will cover the finances of house building, and you might be surprised with the result (or not, after a spoiler like that).

My whys

Here are the priorities I selected for my project:

  1. Eco-friendly
  2. Maker-focused
  3. For group living
  4. (Reasonably) affordable

Reduce my environmental footprint by building an efficient, high density house in a walk+bikeable location. This includes solar panels, above-code insulation, high-performance appliances and, perhaps most controversially, not running natural gas.

Plus, not only will I save a bunch on energy bills, my indoor air quality and thermal comfort will be higher!

I love building stuff, and I want a house that supports that. It must have a large workshop space, and the infrastructure (electrical wiring, networking, etc) to support future growth. This becomes an interesting design challenge when combined with group living since the house needs to support people using power tools while others are working, or even sleeping.

So many of us miss our college days, yet leave the dorms to live alone. I want to build a house designed for group living, one that gives you all of the benefits of living with friends (happier, less lonely, intellectual stimulation) but engineers away the problems (noise, space, comfort). Basically, dorms for independent adults. (This is part of a growing trend called “coliving”)

While group living makes the house more affordable, it also makes it more important to be affordable. If rent is too expensive, I’ll scare off potential housemates! To remain competitive in the Pittsburgh luxury rental market, I targeted keeping rent under $1,000/mo/person. Plus, I need to consider resale for a more standard use case (i.e. family), since resale value plays a significant role in total project cost.

My whys in action

The basement is all about Making, including a large workshop with sound and chemical barriers between it and the rest of the house. The electrical is also over-spec’d, including 2x 20 amp circuits, and 2x 50 amp circuits (which will also be used for EV charging).
The first floor is about maximizing group living. Highlights include a huge Den / Office that will give everyone a space for a desk, a kitchen with two stoves so that multiple people can cook at the same time, and range hoods that vent to the exterior to keep indoor air quality high (and smells low) while people cook.
The second floor is for most of the bedrooms. Specific design choices include separating the bedrooms with bathrooms or closets to minimize noise, and a shared bathroom that includes a separate room for the shower + toilet to make it easier to share.
The third floor includes the final bedroom and a bonus room. During the WFH pandemic, it’ll be used as an extra office space. A future owner could turn it into its own suite, or a very generous master bedroom.

P.S. Part 2 of the series is out now! The finances of building a home

Technology, Entrepreneurship and Design to make the planet a better place. Pittsburgh, PA.

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