Building the Dream | Elf

Building the Dream | Elf

Whether you want to trim costs or experience the joy of knowing you built the roof over yours and your family’s heads (and everything under it) with your own two hands, a kit home may be the way to go.

A kit home is a house designed and partially manufactured off-site, then shipped to a site for assembly — by you.

It’s not a new concept; kit homes have been around since the early 20th century, later sold by companies such as Sears & Roebuck. By the World War II era, tens of thousands of these do-it-(almost)-yourself homes had been sold.

In the Monadnock Region, there is one company that designs and sells kit homes: FirstDay Cottage in Walpole. The company was founded 25 years ago by MIT-trained architectural designer, David Howard. He and his wife, Pam, built their first home in the 1970s — it measured 11-by-24 feet and was one-and-a-half stories high.

Howard’s early work involved designing and constructing timber frames for residential homes. Many of these frames were erected for do-it-yourself builders, who would finish the home after the frame was erected. Although the do-it-yourself timber frames were a success, they weren’t quite the 100-percent owner-built homes Howard envisioned.

The FirstDay Cottage design was born out of the idea of timber framing but was redesigned for the owner-builder to not require a crane or other specialized tools and equipment. After a few different designs were tried, the first real FirstDay Cottage was built in 1995 in nearby Alstead.

Since then, the family-owned and operated company has expanded to include the Single-Story T, Saltbox, Cape and garage designs. There have been about 900 built around the world and in 38 U.S. states — there are 74 that were built within the 25-mile radius around Walpole.

“We get one or two calls a day from people wanting to build one of our houses,” Howard said.

A FirstDay Kit Includes instructions and plans, material for building the structural bents, sheathing and decking, insulation, roofing and siding, windows, doors and kitchen cabinets. Owner-builders are also guided through the process of hiring and working with subcontractors for the foundation, plumbing, electrical and heating.

According to Howard, while lumber costs have recently skyrocketed, the base price for a FirstDay Cottage House kit is roughly $40 to $50 per square foot for what is in the kit, with some costs variable depending on options and details. Houses with cathedral ceilings typically cost more and houses on slab foundations cost less. The finished cost of the house (not including land or site improvements such as septic or driveway) winds up being about twice the cost of the kit.

Still, a kit home such as the ones Howard’s company sells are the most economical.

“It’s half the price of building a modular home,” he said. But unlike a modular home, Howard’s uses no plywood, sheetrock, fiberglass or particle board — everything is made from wood, which lends to its sturdiness and longevity. It’s energy-efficient, with an R-value higher than typical home construction because the insulation is continuous and covers the entire outside of the home. Also, Howard has found owner-builders are dedicated to sealing up their home because they are paying the energy bills.

The whole house is designed to be completed by just two people. He considers the ideal customer to be someone with enough dedication and a solid building plan.

It is also designed to be aesthetically pleasing even if it is not perfectly square and true.

This year, Howard developed plans for the Single-Story T kit, built to be easily expandable. It has no basement and instead sits on a radiantly heated slab. The new kit, which Howard said has a wait list, is what he believes to be the simplest and most practical home design you can buy. It is the sole focus of his company today.

“We don’t build two-stories anymore,” he said. “We were pushing away from affordability and toward too much complexity.”

The new design is also cost-effective.

“The client can build a three-bedroom, two-bath house for $60,000,” he said.

Jan Hartness of Westmoreland figures she spent about $50,000 building her FirstDay Cottage with her husband, Mike — the couple bought their kit home from Howard’s company about a decade ago. They built it on a seven-acre piece of land where a house already sat; they used the existing foundation to build it upon and upgraded the existing septic system.

“I think every man’s dream is to build their own home,” Hartness said. “My husband always has thoughts in his head.”

The couple had their doubts at first, until they met Howard at a local home show.

“He could convince anyone to do anything,” she said. “He’s so enthusiastic and passionate about his craft.”

She does admit, though, that a project like this is not for everybody.

The couple spent some more above the cost of the kit and additional work by adding sheetrock to the walls, more windows and a cupola. Howard worked with them on those details too. Because of those additions, it took Hartness and her husband about two years to complete, working every weekend and occasionally with extra help from family members and friends. She admits it took longer than it would take for most FirstDay Cottage owners.

“We’re beyond pleased,” she said. “It’s efficient and so well-done, which you can’t get with most craft homes.”

There are a few more important things to factor in before you get started building your kit home. These include familiarizing yourself with local building codes to avoid costly mistakes; setting aside a place to store and cover building materials and space for construction vehicles to park; understanding building instructions before you lift a single tool; consider all necessary costs before building; and blocking out enough time to finish your project.

While Howard knows owner-builders should take time to seriously consider before taking on such a project as building your own home, the satisfaction of living inside that finished home far outweighs the elbow grease it takes to get there.

“There’s something that happens inside people once they do a project like this and stick with it,” he said. “It does magic for them.”

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