BYOH: Build Your Own House

Claire and I got married last August, and with our 1st anniversary approaching we are deciding how to organize the rest of our life together. We want a house. Whether we buy it or build it, we want to put in the time and effort to make a place our own. We are finished renting apartments, and especially looking to avoid the ever-climbing sky high real estate prices we paid in Brooklyn. We wish to put down roots. Nothing fancy. Just a simple home, a nest, a hearth to warm us and our (future) family.

We follow in the footsteps of Helen and Scott Nearing. During the Great Depression in 1932, they traded their tenement in the Lower East Side of New York City for a homestead in rural Vermont. In 1952 they upended again, having built one successful homestead, and started all over again here in Harborside, Maine. Initially they purchased an old farm and 150 acres (land here was cheap back then) but later constructed numerous buildings and even a new home for themselves. Their goal for living from the beginning involved extricating themselves as much as possible from the capitalist economy that had wrought the Great Depression. The alternative to the “profit-price economy” for the Nearings was an economy of “semi-subsistence livelihood.” Therefore they set to work “putting up our own buildings, with stone and wood from the place, doing the work ourselves.” Once they had secured their cheap land, they did not buy or rent a home within the traditional real estate market. They built their own home made of stone.

The "70-90 house," which the Nearings built (with lots of help) while Helen was in her 70s and Scott in his 90s.

The “70-90 house,” which the Nearings built (with lots of help) while Helen was in her 70s and Scott in his 90s.

To buy or to build? Thoreau (my philosophical life muse) famously built his own cabin during his experiment living in the woods. The Nearings were great Thoreau fans, and quoted him in the introduction to their chapter on building their stone house. “There is some of the same fitness in a man’s building his own house that there is in a bird’s building its own nest…But alas! we do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built.” The best part of living in a space is making it a true and complete reflection of who one is and how one wishes to live. Buying a home that someone else built (or more likely, had built for them) or occupying a rental apartment temporarily affords none of the same pleasure and satisfaction. Too few in modern society have any idea what it feels like to build their own house. I am curious to know how warm and fuzzy a feeling it creates inside.

Clear advantages and disadvantages come with the decision of whether to buy or build a home. Buying an existing home certainly takes less time and you can move in sooner. Existing homes most likely have plumbing, heating, and other amenities and are located in established towns and neighborhoods. Building a house on land within a city or town can be costly because all of the lots have been built on already, relegating a new home to the outskirts of town or a rural location. Building incurs two costs; the price for the land, and the price for the house itself. All told, pre-existing houses will almost always cost less than building a new home from scratch, unless one has the tools, skills, and experience to build themselves without a contractor. I have a lot to learn before I can build my own home but I do think I can do it, just like the Nearings built two houses and dozens of stone buildings with no architectural or building back grounds. Building is never a one or two person job, it is a village job, The house in which I sit the Nearings built, from 1974-1978, with the help of a skilled carpenter, electrician, and many friends when Helen was in her 70s and Scott was in his 90s. I think they built this final home to show themselves and other that it was possible. No matter the age or station in life, one could own a home without a bank loan or mortgage. They viewed each building project as “an engrossing and exciting adventure. Something new and useful and (we hoped) beautiful was being born. We joy in birthing new buildings.”


Nearing tools used for stone building


The Nearings, economical as ever, always built with stone. They collected stone for recreation, and sorted them into various piles according to their planned purpose. They even collected the sand for the concrete from the beach across the road. They built 9 stone and concrete buildings on their first homestead in Maine. The stone outhouse, barn/garage, greenhouse/garden, and home in which I write comprised their last building projects. At this point they had decades of experience and had built dozens of stone structures. They learned from past mistakes and they were good at it. The Nearings used stone for several reasons: “Stone buildings seem a natural outcropping of the earth. They blend into the landscape and are part of it. We like the varied color and character of the stones, which are lying around unused on most New England farms. Stone houses are poised, dignified, and solid–sturdy in appearance and in fact, standing as they do for generations. They are cheaper to maintain, needing no paint, little or no upkeep or repair.” They followed a system for stone building put forth by Ernest Flagg, who promoted building using forms rather than cut stone to reduce costs to the builder. The forms are wooden frames or scaffolding into which stone and concrete are placed to set and dry. Once dry, the wood forms are removed and the process repeats to build the walls up. Nearing forms were 18 inches wide and varied in length from 15 inches to 14 feet. For their house, they set the corners first with custom built pine or spruce forms and then filled in the gaps and built up the walls.

Wooden forms were used as scaffolding to erect the stone structures. Stone were laid inside the forms facing out, while the middle was filled in with smaller stones and cement

Wooden forms were used as scaffolding to erect the stone structures. Stone were laid inside the forms facing out, while the middle was filled in with smaller stones and cement

They set the door and window frames directly into the stone walls, and used savaged timber from an old fertilizer factory for the door and window frames. The collection of stones came into play as they filled the forms with interesting stone faces pointed outward, and less interesting stones (“uglies”) used to fill in the middle and mix with the cement. Once dry and hardened, the forms were removed. The resulting stone wall was plumbed and pointed with concrete hand mixed in a wheel barrow. What stand today are very handsome, durable stone buildings erected with patience, determination, skill, and love.

It is truly an honor to live in such an inspiring and special place, infused with the passion and economy that Helen and Scott put into everything they did. Building a homestead involves so much more than creating a shelter to keep the elements at bay. Forest Farm far exceeded its stated goal of being a “simple practical place to continue living the good life.” The home blends into the environment in testament to the simple lives lived here in harmony with the Earth. Today their stone beacon shines through the fog emanating off Penobscot Bay as a reminder to all who visit this special corner of the planet, that alternatives to mortgages and pre-built houses exist. Scott and Helen called this house “The 70-90 House,” owing to their ages when they built it. If they could, so can we.

Helen insisted on handling every stone in what Scott called "Helen's house." Each stone told a story. In this case a large fish preys on a smaller fish

Helen insisted on handling every stone in what Scott called “Helen’s house.” Each stone told a story. In this case a large fish preys on a smaller fish

(For more details about how the Nearings built with stone, see Our Home Made of Stone, which sadly is out of print, or “We Build a Stone House,” and “Building Stone Structures” from The Good Life.)


Sam Adels

About Sam Adels

Sam and his wife Claire are the resident stewards of the Good Life Center, the homestead of Helen and Scott Nearing in Harborside, Maine. They are learning from the example that Helen and Scott set with their lives: living simply, gardening, and welcoming visitors to their homestead. They are transplants, and like a seedling, they are together putting down roots in order to grow.