3 min Read
September 11, 2013

Hair full of sawdust, head full of ideas

Big Duck

Roughly 30% of what I watch on TV is repeat episodes of This Old House, recorded on three different channels. The other 70% takes place in Alaska. It was really a matter of time before I took a break from being an art director to go live in a yurt in Maine and learn all there is to know about housebuilding. I mean really, I should have seen this coming.

I discovered Shelter Institute while reading a New York Times blog about a cabin build. They were offering a two-week program for at the “homeowner/builder” who wanted to build their own house. Perfect.

My goal was to hack together something like this place, deep in the woods, really far away from the daily obsession of food trucks and Instagram. It might be a place to get some fresh air, do some fishing, and build a few unnecessarily large camp fires. Seems simple enough right?

When I signed up for the class I rented this wooden spaceship, a good test run of what my cabin experience might be like way in the future. It’s unclear whether that future is in 1970 or 2070. Either way, it was great.

Most days, the neighbor’s roosters work me up. I’d wash the dishes and myself in the outdoor shower (the only place with running water), listen to some Lewiston NPR and down a cup of coffee made over my camp stove.

Class was from 8:30 to 5:30 with workshops afterward in things like chainsaw maintenance or the nuances of operating a 15 ton excavator.

The excavator was…great.

The lectures unearthed, somewhat unsuccessfully, ancient grade-school knowledge about science and math that I slowly shed with the arrival of Google. As I waded into the very complicated principles of calculating point loads, wiring a house, or testing my own soil, I realized quickly, I really had no clue what I was doing when it came to housebuilding. HGTV makes it look way too easy.

It was a humbling to say the least and taught me a few things. I learned that my arms are way too flimsy to be working all day with a chisel and mallet.

I learned that wiring your own home is complicated, but completely doable.

And I learned that Maine has some pretty great typography in unexpected places.

The class was equally about building to code as it was about creating something permanent and great. “Build something that will last a lifetime,” they told us. “You don’t want to be an old man fixing a leak on your roof.” And that’s a lesson as important for nonprofits as it is for home builders.

When it came down to it, they were really just talking about what makes for good design: employing careful planning and expertise to produce something that will stand the test of time. It’s easy to forget that what you do now sets the stage for everything you do later. Investing in a solid foundation in communications, just as in construction, can save you a lot of hassle fixing mistakes later. Building this way takes knowledge and hard work, and it turns out, hiring an expert is actually sometimes better than doing it yourself (I’m looking at you, logo DIYers!).

But don’t you worry, the cabin of my dreams is still alive and well, it just now has its imaginary foundation poured by an imaginary concrete company. I still plan on doing the rest of the build myself someday. Armed with some newfound knowledge, this actually feels possible.

Do yourself a favor, go someplace where you’re not the expert, take copious notes, and re-learn how to learn. It just might make you a better expert.

(image credit)