A lot of people are excited about the idea of straw bale construction; however, they stumble a bit when it comes to estimating the cost of their potential home. I very often receive emails from people checking out plans on StrawBalePlans.com asking how much a specific plan will cost to actually build. That’s such a hard question to answer and here’s why.
Exactly what a project costs to build will depend so much on where it is built. This is because both labor and material costs vary greatly by region. A yard of concrete may cost $100 here in Oregon and that same yard can run upwards of twice that in other parts of the world. So how is someone supposed to make an informed decision about what plan to buy and what that plan might cost to build?
The answer is actually very simple: start with a rough estimate of the cost. If you are simply considering a plan for construction and are not actually costing it out piece by piece for your construction loan, then you don’t have to be that accurate. Just a rough number will let you know if it is in your price range or not. Here’s what I suggest, looking at two different scenarios. First, let’s consider that you plan to hire out the job to a contractor. This is the absolutely easiest way to get a rough cost for the house. Contact the contractors you think you may hire and send them the link to the plans you hope to build. They can get a sense of what’s involved and give you a rough starting point. Be clear with them that you are not asking for a hard number, just something to let you know if things are in the right ballpark, or even the right game.
Here’s s tip, if you don’t have a specific builder in mind, but know that you do indeed want to hire the job out, get some help in finding the right company. Talk to friends and family who have recently had work done to see if they would recommend their contractor. From there, drive around your town or city and stop in at job sites to meet contractors. Check out the site. Is it tidy? Is it a mess? Do the workers on site take pride in their work or are they a rough group of individuals whom you wouldn’t want to leave alone on your property? You can learn a lot about a company by watching the folks in the field. Once you find some folks that interest you, dig a little deeper. Talk to the owners of the homes they are currently building (you can find owner records at county offices, very often online) and see if they like the company. If so, call the company up and ask for some further references.
You want to get this right, so don’t skimp on the amount of time you spend finding the right company. Finally, trust your gut. If something tells you it’s not the right match, then it’s not. Period. You don’t have to justify it to yourself or anyone else. Just move on to the next option. You always want at least three contractors, so keep looking. Another way to start the search is to look at the company’s license number. If they have an old number, they will have been in business a long time. Construction is a difficult business. Anyone who has been in business a long time has obviously done something right. That’s a good indication that they know what they are doing. Don’t settle for just the number though. Do the extra research as well.
So what if you plan to build the house yourself? In this case, your looking for just the material costs and that’s hard to get from a floor plan online. You would need an actual set of plans to get an accurate bid on materials, so that doesn’t help you if you are currently plan shopping. After all, you probably don’t want to spend a couple thousand dollars on plans only to discover you can’t afford to build the house. In this case, the answer is also quite simple. Once again, talk to some local builders in your area, and once again, call three of them. This time your question are simple and may be even quicker and easier for the contractors to answer. Keep in mind that although you may not intend to use a contractor, this conversation may inspire you to change your mind. Good contractors are a wealth of information and can be a huge asset to your job. Keep an open mind and, who knows, you may end up hiring one of the people you talk to. If you are clear that you will not be hiring them, you may want to consider paying them a small stipend for their efforts to help you with your numbers.
Question #1: What do you charge per square foot to build a house of mid to high end finish? You can clarify your “quality” by saying, you want something that fits in the upper end of the market similar to the homes on street “X” in town “X”. This gives the builder reference to what quality you are looking for. Let them know that you understand that it’s impossible to give an accurate bid on a house they haven’t seen, but you are simply looking for rough numbers to help you get your money lined up properly.
Question #2: Of that cost, what is the labor value of the money and what is attributed to materials? You want to know how much the materials would cost, so this is one way into that answer. If they say that X% represents the material costs, you have a number to work with. Compare all three numbers (from the three different contractors you called) and average them together. Now, because you are building straw bale, not conventional, you may need to add 5% to the cost you have come up with. This covers things like the extra cost of interior and exterior plaster as opposed to drywall and cement-board siding. In addition, you may want to add another 5% to the cost to offset the fact that the contractor is probably getting his/her materials at “contractor pricing,” something you won’t get. Now you can use that number to test drive any plan you are considering by multiplying it by the square footage of the home. Is this accurate? No. Is it close enough to get you moving the right direction? Yes.
If you want accuracy, you will need accurate plans. The only way to get accurate plans is to purchase a set of quality construction plans, specific to straw bale homes, like those on StrawBalePlans.com, or to design your own. I have spoken before about the importance of quality design and how much of an impact a good set of plans (or a bad set of plans) can have on a job. If you are working with an architect or designer who has never designed straw bale before, be careful. They may pretend they know what they are doing, but if they have never designed in the medium before, they are likely making it up as they go along. Stay tuned to their progress and be willing to question things that don’t make sense to you. What’s better is to get informed yourself. The best way to get informed is to get training. Come to the Denver Design Workshop in October and learn how to design your plans specific to straw bale construction. You can read books as well, but the most up to date information is what I will be sharing in Denver, plus you’ll get a copy of my upcoming book: A Modern Look at Straw Bale Design Details.
Estimating is a whole new topic and one too big to cover here. I have written several pieces about it on StrawBale.com and a quick search for “estimating” at the top of the page will help you find those. Here are some direct links: Estimating 101; Estimating Tips, and Estimating and Creating a Budget. These articles will get you headed in the right direction. If you plan to estimate and build for yourself, I strongly recommend that you check out my course on how to be your own contractor. It doesn’t matter if you know how to build well. If you have never estimated a job or contracted a project, you will need guidance. Making a mistake in your framing can be simple to fix; however, messing up your estimate and/or other aspects of contracting can be the end of your project. Be smart and get the guidance you need BEFORE you get started.