HPH281 : What’s it like to be an owner builder? – with Tully Gallagher
Tully Gallagher of Beartooth Passive House, explains what it was like to take a leap of faith in swapping a desk job with building a ‘forever home' for his family.
Interview with Tully Gallagher
Tully had been working as an engineer in Denver for ten years when he and his family decided to move back home to Montana.
“We went from having a very stable income, stable benefits, a pretty consistent life, to moving back home, not having jobs, living in rental houses.”
With intentions to return and build their “forever home” for his family that would be a healthy and comfortable place to live, Tully had originally selected a builder to achieve their high performance house. When that fell through in 2017, and with the chance of finding an alternative that had even heard of Passivhaus, let alone built one, being fairly unlikely, it seemed the natural decision to take on the project themselves.
Tully took on the house building project full-time while his wife found work at the local school to keep an income coming in.
Passivhaus Builders' Training gave him confidence and connections
With his construction experience amounting to limited remodels of previous accommodation, Tully took the Passivhaus Builders' Training in 2017. With that came access to highly knowledgeable people that he could lean on for tips and feedback during the planning phase.
Keeping it simple was crucial
From the outset when they decided to build the house themselves, they opted to keep the form very simple: a two-storey rectangle with engineered roof trusses.
Emu Systems, who delivered the Passivhaus training, were trying to standardise construction methods for different climate zones and were looking for partners to pilot their system. It was a good fit with what Tully was looking for so they worked together on the construction system, building science, wall details, window installs etc.
The remote location brought its own challenges
Located about four miles from the town of Red Lodge (population of around 2,000), their site was relatively flat at the top of a hill in a sparsely populated area. One of the biggest problems about the location was the absence of any major DIY store; the closest being an hour and a quarter away.
The location for the house was based on a transformer being a couple of hundred feet away so they could connect electricity without a problem.
For waste water they had a septic system installed, and for incoming water they hired a company to drill a well. A pump runs from the well and is connected to a line that runs into the house, with a pressure tank supplying the pressure to the house and holding a reserve of the water.
They used a pre-determined build system
Partnering with Emu meant the construction system was already determined, which was a Passivhaus double stud wall system. Overall wall thickness is around 20 inches, incorporating mineral wool batt insulation, interior finishing and exterior siding.
With the house being a basic rectangle shape the airtightness strategy didn't pose any problems. The only junction that took more consideration was at the second storey floor system and how to get the air barrier out and around the floor joists.
“But it was definitely something that we thought of early on and we picked the materials that we used for that air barrier specifically because they were really easy to work with and they were really strong and robust. They could stand up to if somebody accidentally bumped into them or something accidentally hit it and ripped it. It was pretty easy to repair and get it back to air-sealed.”
They have moved in while finishing the interior
Tully and his family moved into their home during November 2019. It isn't yet finished but the pace of work has only slowed a little now that they're in and are working on finishing the interiors. Interior doors are due to arrive soon, then it will be finishing the window trim and putting a lime plaster on all the interior walls. The bathroom installation is currently underway which Tully sees as a fairly big undertaking because of its size and his lack of experience.
Make time to have a break
A particularly difficult part of the build was the roof, which he saw as his nemesis and was one of the times he wished he was back at his desk job! Although not afraid of heights, he doesn't particularly love them and with the ridge of the house being around 30 feet off the ground even getting the sheathing up there was difficult.
He remembers one specific heart-sinking day where they had stapled all the underlayment down when it started getting very windy. Looking up from where he was having lunch at his parent's house nearby he could see it starting to billow in the wind before a big length of it gave way and started flapping about. They ended up putting a metal roof on the house, with Tully admitting that the first couple of panels while they were figuring it out weren't the prettiest and were put at the back of the house where they wouldn't be seen!
The biggest challenge Tully faced was knowing when to walk away and take a break.
“I was wanting to get things built and it got to the point where coming out every day, I started to become a little bit more easily agitated and I just needed a break. That’s something that was a struggle for me all the way through building, knowing that I want to continue making progress so that we can move in, but at the same time I needed to take a break so that mentally and physically I could recover.”
Take your time in the planning stages
Tully says that although it's been hard and taken a long time, if they hadn't first gone through such a detailed design and planning stage it would have been a lot more difficult.
“So, from a design phase and early implementation phase, that’s the time where it doesn’t cost you really much more money to take another month or two months to really get things lined out and understood. So, that was a big learning experience for me.”
From a teaching perspective going forward, he would like to specialise in high performance building envelopes and the installation of that system, including the air barrier, insulation and windows. He would also like to explore the possibility of doing that in a pre-fabricated manner where the walls, floors and roof can be made into panels that can be trucked to the site and installed within a matter of days.
It's been a stressful but satisfying experience
Tully's advice to anyone taking on something similar, is to be prepared for it to take a very long time, especially if you're doing it yourself. Spend time planning and thinking everything through as it's a lot better to make the mistake during the planning stage than when you're actually building it.
Tully spent a lot of time doing 3D modelling in SketchUp, using it to model every single framing member before cutting any timber at all. He found it helped him to think through all the different junctions and how it would all work together.
He also says to be prepared for it to cost a lot more than you are expecting.
“So, if a budget constraint comes up and you have to choose between having really nice counter tops or spending the money to put in an additional X amount of insulation and focus on airtightness, I would say really consider that airtightness and insulation piece because you’ll probably never do that again or never have the opportunity to do that again. But you can save up for a year and upgrade your kitchen counter tops really easily.”
“It’s stressful. I’d like to say that I’ve had way more stress in the last year-and-a-half than I had in the previous eight years probably combined. But I think I’ve also lived more and experienced more in the last year-and-a-half both in emotion and physical, actual achievement, than I had in previous years.
I’d had an office job for the most part. I did a little bit of fieldwork. But when you go in and you’re on a computer, you can build some really cool spreadsheets or do some cool stuff in software but it’s not the same thing as being able to go to work, work hard all day, then leave and look at a forty foot long, nine foot tall wall that you built and stood up that day.”
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