By Andrew Morrison
One inevitable truth about building a house, whether it be with straw bales or conventional building materials, is that you will encounter moments of stress along the way. How you understand the sources of that stress and manage them within the larger scope of your construction project may be the difference between a quality, enjoyable build and a disaster. What’s more, that understanding and management could be the difference in the stress levels of your personal life as well. Over the years I have seen several couples end up in divorce over the most mundane decisions when building their homes. The “last straw” (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) was not the real cause of the separation, but rather the culmination of ignored stress along the way. I’ve outlined some basic ways to minimize the stress you are likely to encounter during your build below. These are some of many approaches I have used over the years with my clients and in my own builds. As much as they all hold importance, there is one that stands out above them all, in life as well as on the job, and so we will start there.
There is no one single more important detail to pay attention to during your build than communication. The first and by far most important communication to pay attention to is that between you and your loved ones. If you are building with a partner, that relationship has got to come first, at all times. You may lose track of that in the moment and the decisions you are making regarding time line, finish materials, or whatever else may seem like it is more important, but I guarantee you that it is not. If you feel resentment cropping up between you and your partner, then stop everything else and address it. Freeing that potential energetic back up will make the entire job more efficient and productive. Keep in mind that your partner is who you plan to live with (in this scenario) and so pushing them aside to deal with “the current construction situation” is not a smart plan. Rather, lower your stress levels, improve your relationships, and deepen your love for each other in the moment, not when it’s too late. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. once said (and you can translate this for men and women) “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.”
The next level of communication is with your subcontractors. First of all, hire the right subs. It’s not about who is the cheapest, it’s about who is the best in the price range you can afford. It is vital that everyone working on the house be on the same page and is moving forward together. If one cog in that wheel is out of synch, it can cause delays and stress all the way to the end of the project. I always require clear communication of my subs and I offer it back to them. A great way to start this off on the right foot is to hold a round table meeting before any ground is broken. Once you have decided who your subcontractors will be, bring a representative from each of them together at a meeting. You can discuss the details of the construction drawings together and decide if any changes need to be made now, before the final drawings have been set. For example, a plumber may suggest that moving a window 6” to the left would allow them to bring their sanitary line down from upstairs with more ease, thus saving you time, stress and money. During the meeting, the HVAC contractor may say “nope, that eats up my fresh air return and that’s the ONLY place I can put it.” Wouldn’t that be good to know before you start building and subcontractors start “getting in each other’s way?” Once you have completed your round table discussion, print your plans on green paper. This way, when a subcontractor shows up to do their work, you will know if the details of the round table meeting have been passed down to the people actually doing the work. No green set of plans means the sub doesn’t start working. Again, every one needs to be on the same page.
Yup, the M word. Funnily enough, it is something that many people say they want in life, yet very few want to talk about. Here’s the reality: you will need to have an open and honest relationship with your money because it takes money to build a house (in most cases). You need to know how much money you have available to you to build with. You need to know how much your project is going to cost. You need to know what do if something comes in over budget. All of these details need to be addressed before the project starts.
Part of the money equation is having clear and accurate plans. It may cost you money up front to get the right plans, but that is money well spent. It is vital that you get the right set of plans, not just any set of plans. Make sure that the designer or architect you are working with has experience with straw bale homes and that he or she designs within the style of construction techniques you plan to build with. There is no point in hiring someone who doesn’t understand straw bale construction in hopes they can learn on your dime. With clear and well-appointed plans, you will actually save money in the construction process because the guesswork is taken out of the equation. What’s more, an accurate set of plans makes creating a materials list a lot easier. Knowing exactly what materials you need for your build makes estimating the job much more accurate. Again, one simple step of getting the right person to draw quality plans has saved you a lot of money and a lot of stress, right from the start.
Let’s face it; things change. Even with the best round table meeting and the most accurate materials list, you may decide to make changes to your build along the way. This is very common. Maybe you want to add or remove a window, change the appliances, or even add square footage to the design. No matter what the reason for your change, you need to be prepared for it. Having a contingency fund, either in cash or in a bank loan, will give you the flexibility to make those changes without killing your available budget. Knowing that you have the funds in place in advance of making the changes will lower your stress levels significantly.
Have you ever felt the pressure of time running out? That illusion causes all kinds of stress in many situations. I use the word “illusion” intentionally here. This is because there is no time pressure. Sure, you may have a bank deadline or a desired move in date, but what happens if you miss those dates? Not much. You will be charged a penalty on a bank loan if you miss the deadline (perhaps, although those penalties can also be mitigated with the right approach), but not much else will happen. The world won’t stop spinning and your body won’t suddenly fall apart. Finding ways to eliminate the illusion of time pressure is vital for your calm success. The first is to recognize that it is okay to be flexible with your time line. That said; don’t plan to put things off forever. Do your best to stay focused; however, if your level of stress is elevating to where you are no longer productive, then let it go and refocus yourself.
Meditation is one great way to recognize this illusion and to refocus. Take some time each day to get quiet. You don’t need a specific spiritual practice to enjoy the benefits of meditation. It can be as simple as sitting quietly with your eyes closed for 20 minutes once or twice a day. When stressful thoughts come up, simply allow them to pass. Don’t answer questions that arise in your mind. If anything that shows up during your quiet time is important, it will come back when you are in a place to do something about it. For now, your only task is to relax. If you haven’t meditated before, I think you will be amazed at how well it works. I invite you to take this practice into your daily life whether you are building or not. As we all know, stress is a leading factor in early deaths and just plain old unhappiness. If 20-40 minutes a day of sitting quietly can create happiness, why wouldn’t you choose that?
Take weekends. This is especially hard if you are holding down a full time job and building your house on the side. If that is your plan, first of all I suggest that you reconsider taking time off of work to get the house done. If you can’t do that, then be sure to find ways to take time off anyway. Maybe work 3 weekends a month and take the fourth one as well deserved time off. It is not possible to work 24/7 and expect your life to be stress free. That stress will continue to build until you find a way to let it go. That release is what makes room for success, so don’t overlook it.
Finally, remember that this is supposed to fun. By “this” I mean building a house as well as just life in general. Don’t forget to enjoy the process. When something goes wrong, look at it not as a problem but as a learning opportunity. Remember that mistakes are everywhere and that only a select few see them as chances to learn something new and to grow. That is a much more pleasurable way of perceiving stumbling blocks. Take time to play both on and off of the job site. Listen to music, bring a frisbee to work, whatever it takes to bring fun to the day. Your overall success and the quality of your build will sit squarely in your ability to relax and enjoy the process. The more you can do to allow that happiness and enjoyment to flow, the better your overall experience and finished product will be.
Andrew has a passion for straw bale construction that is matched only by his desire to teach his knowledge to others. With nearly 20 years of building and contracting experience, he has now moved his practice entirely to consulting and teaching. He shares his knowledge with thousands of people via his DVD series, blog, and hands on workshops. To learn more, please visit www.StrawBale.com.