HPH123 : How different is building a home in the USA versus in the UK? – with Michelle Nelson from Build Your House Yourself University
Michelle Nelson, from the Build Your House Yourself University podcast, and Ben Adam-Smith discuss the differences and similarities between self building in the UK and the USA.
Interview with Michelle Nelson
Michelle has been producing the Build Your House Yourself University podcast in the United States since the beginning of 2016. Like Ben Adam-Smith she is keen to build her own house and the podcast is her way of sharing the knowledge she is gaining along the way. She sees her podcast as being like a big study group, which she both leads in teaching the basics of residential construction and home design, but is also a peer. She enjoys using podcasts as a medium for learning as it is a way for people to multitask. As an enthusiastic learner herself she loves that people can learn while carrying out chores, exercising or doing any number of other tasks.
Michelle's dream was to build her own house in the countryside, until she spent a few months living in the countryside and realised that actually she valued living closer to shops, restaurants and her workplace far more! She is now saving hard so that she can buy a plot in a suburb, with a view. Where she is, there is plenty of land and the city is driveable rather walkable. Concern about the reliance on cars is something which she says is not on the radar of most Americans.
US homes can be rated based on their energy efficiency
Michelle says one of the best things she has learned about on her journey so far, is all about the Home Energy Rating System (HERS), which rates houses according to their energy efficiency. Independent companies can perform tests while your home is under construction. There are different targets available so depending on your budget and your interest in energy efficiency, it can help determine the type of insulation, heating, ventilation, cooling, windows, doors etc that you will put into your new home.
A house needs to be strong as well as pretty!
Another discovery that Michelle made was a company (Simpson Strong-Tie) that uses a system with a continuous load path. They use ties, fasteners and metal bolts that connect the roof to the wall studs, the wall studs to the flooring, and the flooring to the foundations. As some parts of the USA are particularly vulnerable to storms, tornadoes and hurricanes, this strengthening of the house means it is less likely to be damaged by high winds.
Three things that are great about the housing industry:
In the USA
Michelle's first choice is that, with the exception of the large, over-crowded cities, the USA generally benefits from having plenty of land available.
Secondly, the US is fortunate enough to have a plentiful number and diversity of suppliers and materials.
Thirdly, residents are open, proud and happy to show off their houses, whether that be sharing ideas in person or on the internet.
In the UK
Ben credits the UK with having a real diversity of projects, particularly when it comes to self building.
Secondly, he believes in the UK we have a number of people doing great, innovative, problem solving work, and if their word could just reach a wider audience we could go a long way.
Thirdly, self builders in the UK are very open to sharing. They tend to be happy to show people their houses and are honest about their projects, including explaining where they went wrong which can be so valuable to other potential self builders.
Three challenges within the housing industry:
In the USA
There is not a very popular self build movement in the USA. Michelle also says that while homeowners are generally very open and sharing with information, she has not found the same to be true of builders and general contractors. In fact she has so far had all requests to interview them for her podcast refused! This is in great contrast to the UK where Ben says people of all occupations within the building industry have generally been very helpful and willing to contribute their expertise.
Secondly, sub-contractors are less likely to prioritise self builders over other work. Michelle says these kinds of projects tend to be put on the back-burner while sub-contractors carry out work for general contractors, so it can be difficult to get them scheduled.
Thirdly, there are challenges financing self builds. Michelle does say however that banks tend to be more receptive if there is someone hired on the project that does have building experience, even if that's employing a site manager if you're planning to do the actual building work yourself.
In the UK
Firstly, Ben feels that nearly all house building in the UK is driven by profit, which sadly doesn't lead to quality results. Michelle comments that this is not unique to the UK and is much the same in the USA.
Secondly, there is no easy process if you're trying to learn this for the first time. Considering it could be one of the biggest steps and projects you take on in life, there is no straight forward route for doing it. Michelle agrees that this is the same in the USA.
Finally, building a home in the UK is only for the wealthy. While Ben accepts this isn't exactly true and it certainly shouldn't be that way, it does seem that if you have plenty of money to throw at it the journey is that much easier.
The USA has building permits / zoning departments
The name can vary from region to region, but essentially this is where you get your initial building permit from. Their involvement starts right at the beginning of the process where they approve the project, progressing through site inspections throughout and ending with final approval and a certificate of occupancy.
Although varying from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, there are also homeowner associations, which are a kind of governing body for the neighbourhood. They will look at plans and decide whether the size, materials etc are appropriate for the locality.
Find out more
Visit the website of Build Your House Yourself University
Michelle says GardenWeb (part of Houzz) is a great forum where people share their house-building experience.
Download a transcript of the interview with Michelle Nelson.
The Hub update
This month we have added a new module to The Hub called Getting Started. This is perfect for you if you're just starting your research.
At Long Barrow, the Passivhaus case study that we are following, they are putting up the steel frame (which went up in just 5 hours!) and we find out why there is a steel frame in the first place and how they are being careful of thermal bridging.
Future Hub topics will include sweat equity, finishing off a home and roofing options.
If you feel you can contribute to the topic of sweat equity and can provide useful advice – whether you put in the work yourself and it paid off, or maybe you wish you'd never done it, then please do get in touch.
Please connect with me
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About The Author
Lucy Cowell is owner of the Virtual Assistant company Quantum PA. Being immersed in the world of architecture for over 20 years and since working with Ben Adam-Smith, she is now determined to build her own house one day too!