Putting the “Why” in DIY – Building a Community of Competence and Confidence in Construction

Jake Trim

What’s your major?

My friends and I have a saying when taking on a new project, “I went to Youtube University and figured out how to….”.  The wealth of knowledge and experience that is out there for all of us to tap into is truly staggering.  

One such “degree” I’ve been working on over the last decade, has been in motorcycle customization.  I've watched countless hours of videos, read articles, and scoured forum posts to immerse myself in this world.  I bought triumph and went to work.  Did I know what I was doing?  No. Was I worried that I was my own mechanic for this 2 wheeled fun mobile? Yes!  However, watching others’ projects step bystep helped me grow my knowledge, competence, and confidence. I’ve since put12,000 miles on this bike from the Oregon Coast to 11,000-foot peaks in Wyoming to the Bonneville Salt flats.    

Job Well-done

Ok, so motorcycles aren’t your thing.  What about cooking?  Is there anyone out there whose idea of a“home-cooked meal” includes a frozen box, microwave, and a bag of salad?  It’s almost as if I’m speaking from experience here, but I digress.  

Whether you are watching episodes of The Great British BakeOff or engrossed in episodes of Anthony Bourdain’sParts Unknown, you love food.  But our love of food, and our talent to create it may be worlds apart from each other.  There is a reason Buzzfeed’sTasty channel on YouTube has over 20 million subscribers.  These online resources turn us from zero’s heroes in the kitchen.

This old house flipped by Chip and Joanna

Let’s get to the meat and potatoes of why I wrote this, and why you are likely reading it.  Whether you were a Bob Vila fan watching him fix up old homes, or you spend your weekends with your spouse watching the antics of Chip and Joanna in Waco Texas, you are part of a home improvement movement. We all start as voyeurs, but inevitably that project will present itself and you say….”I can do that”.  Why not try?  You can save yourself the hassle of finding a contractor, vetting him/her, getting references, getting fit into their busy schedule and you can save yourself the expense.

Rookie vs. Professional

There is a reason contractors stay busy, and charge what they do.  They’ve already learned the lessons you are about to try and learn.  It's an easy job.  Managing staff, inspectors, clients, subcontractors, and suppliers is not for the faint of heart.  Balancing the timing you need tradespeople, to the timing they have available all while keeping a project on time and within budget is a talent.  T why I highly encourage you to have an honest conversation with yourself.  Do you have the time, ability to learn, and skills to make it happen?  If not, can the scope of work be limited to what you do have time and the skill for?  

Practice makes perfect

Your DIY skills are like muscles.  They atrophy over time if they’re not used enough.  So cut yourself some slack.  You’ll make bad cuts, in the beginning, you’ll not be as balanced on that ladder as you think you should be, and you'll definitely not be as strong as you want to be. I remember day 1 of basketball practice back in high school.  Conditioning is job one, to prevent injury and gain stamina.  The skills come afterward when you have the basics of strength and conditioning down.  So hit the weights, move that lumber, weed that garden, and go for that walk.  The strength you'll gain will be appreciated when you are on the ladder with your hands full.

Don’t be a tool

The right tool for the right job will always shave time off a project and probably result in a nicer finish for whatever you are doing.  If you are like me, buying that tool you may only need once in your life is a difficult purchase to make.  Check with your local tool rental companies.  I’ve been amazed at what you can rent instead of buy, and it will always come with a quick tutorial.  Renting a tool, but buying the knowledge!  However, that project may be the perfect motivation to evaluate your tools.  Budget for a few upgrades or purchases. Minimally, you should start with fresh blades for your tools and have enough drill and driving bits to lose a few along the way.  

Phone a friend

We all know that 1+1=2, right?  When it relates to labor on a job, my business partner and I have figured out that 1+1=4.  What do I mean by that?  If you think about a project and the time it takes to configure ways to transport raw materials, stage raw materials, cut, install, or whatever you may be doing, adding another person doesn’t just double your productivity.  It’s more than that.  That divide and conquer effect actually can provide a multitude of productivity.

“Many hands make light work” is a saying for a reason.  By properly planning your project, you can make effective use of your time by getting help for a day or two for the bulk of the work.  You may shave 4 days off of your work by doing so.  We’ve found that work share is effective.  Let’s work at your house for a couple of days, then mine. We’ll get way more done, and likely have a little more fun along the way.  That is if you like working with your friends!  Not only are you saving money on labor, but it can also actually be energizing, better ideas come from2 heads instead of one, and it’s motivating to see what you can accomplish in a shorter period.  And if it’s really hard work, misery loves company!

Can I get a little help?

We’ve experienced a lot of change over the last 10years.  We noticed a decade ago that housing demands were outpacing the number of people to do the work.  Simple supply and demand.  Labor, which is in short supply, hasn’t been able to keep up with the demand for services. Creating an increase in the costs and driving more and more people to take on that home improvement project themselves. That’s where we are today.  

Material costs are in the same boat.  Demand is high, supply is short, so naturally, costs go up.  I know this may be overly simplified, but supply chain dynamics and macroeconomic policy is a task for another blog.

All of these factors will be with us for a while, so I think it's important for homeowners to be aware of these trends, and for suppliers and contractors to be realistic as to what we can do to help homeowners if we have limited time to help them.  

Design for the time

I’m going to use some thought processes we employed when developing Watershed’s ADU to provide some context on what we think will help homeowners.  However, I want to be clear that some of this is applicable in just about any remodel or new construction process.

The National Association of Home Builders did a study in September of 2015.  They found that a general contractor would use on average 22 subcontractors in the construction of a single-family home.  That’s not a typo.  As I mentioned earlier, general contractors have become very good at herding cats and keeping projects on track.  

The question we asked ourselves is how we can reduce that number.  Decreasing complexity and moving parts can only increase predictability and simplicity.  Another added benefit would be to include clients in the build process, so they understand where their investment is going, and how they may be able to affect it.

Our more simplistic wall assembly uses a single, 2 ¼ solid wood panel wall that is structural and also serves as the finished interior wall, eliminating the need for drywall. This cuts down on the mud, tape, sanding, texture, sealer, and paint process.  Interior finish work is minimal because gaps are tight, and molding around doors and windows is simple.  Our team handles the installation of bathroom fixtures, kitchen cabinetry, but the wall assemblies make this very simple.  Walls are plumb and square, and you don’t spend any time finding a stud wall to attach to.  

The exterior of the building has an envelope of rigid insulation attached to the solid panel. Attachment is simple, and there is no complex framing to workaround.  This also works as a vapor barrier, eliminating the need for house wrap. We use a 1x8 Douglas fir shiplap as the finished siding, making it simple to stain or paint and in the finish carpentry around doors and windows.  The panels also create a finished underside of the soffit, eliminating the need for boxing in finishing the underside of the soffits.

Our ADU requires our team and just 4 subcontractors.  Much more predictable, and the simplicity was designed into the structure, so clients looking to participate in the build and offset costs, are capable and empowered to do so.

Crystal ball

None of us have a crystal ball to tell us what the future of home building will look like.  We know there are current challenges, and it’s exciting to see the industry working to resolve them with innovation.  We also know that not everyone is capable or has the time to commit to building their own home.  

However, one thing is predictable.  Populations grow, and housing is needed.  Couple that with fewer people entering the trades and we can all see that change is needed.  Promotion of more trade schools, mentorship and training programs, and innovative ways in which you can build homes are all part of the answer.  Watershed will continue to push the envelope, empower our clients, and build some beautiful homes that may inspire the next generation of builders.

If you are looking for some motivation, inspiration, or to build your DIY skills, we’ve put together a great video series that follows Shawn Kenyon, one of our founders, through the building of his timber frame dream woodshop.  While we push forward with innovative approaches with Watershed, Shawn shows that there is plenty of room for traditional and historic craftsmanship.  You never know, you could see a combination of both coming to a project near you!  

"Mostly Alone in My Backyard" (https://youtube.com/playlist?list=PLTTrDNblfoCBRAiKvbezbfOMlXes5TB35)

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