Should you build your own home?

Writing my own weblog CMS from scratch is, of course, lunacy. Consequently, I have been coming up with an elaborate justification for why the project is, at least, lunacy with a more respected real-world precedent. If you’re allergic to Internet metaphors look away… now.

More and more people these days have a home on the web. It’s not like the old days when the frontier was dotted with rickety encampments cobbled together out of discarded HTML 2 tags and animated gifs.

When I was first looking to make a home online, in 1995, I could only find three small places that offered free plots on which to build your own home. Even then, you had to learn how to construct it yourself. Everyone’s home was different and many were ugly (here’s a copy of mine, like a reconstruction behind glass in an anthropology museum, inhabited only by a Phil made of wax). The frontier was full of wierdos and pioneers and you could walk from one end of the country to another in a few clicks. But the folks back in the Old World of IRL didn’t yet “get it” and thought that anyone with a home on the web was a bit odd.

Jump forward to today and nearly all those people are here now. The frontier has kept moving, but the metropolis back east has reached the once wide-open spaces and the weirdos are outnumbered by the people who once pointed and laughed at the pioneers with their gerry-built homes.

Obviously, these newcomers, the normal folk, haven’t constructed their homes themselves out of raw materials. No one has to build their own home these days. Most people now live in the suburbs, the welcoming low-risk community of Facebook.

Garage Doors Facebook
(Garage Doors)

Sure, all the homes look pretty much the same, and the place is tightly controlled by the development company who can pretty much do what they like but, so long as they keep down crime and don’t change too much too quickly, everyone’s pretty happy and some rarely venture beyond the boundary. It’s a sociable kind of suburb and you’re allowed to customise your home to a certain extent — nothing too garish or personal, but fun little decorations that make your home your own.

Facebook’s not the only suburb of course. MySpace has declined somewhat and it’s a bit more lower class but it’s still going strong. The rules are laxer over there and it’s not to everyone’s taste: it’s like all the houses are decorated for a festival all year round.

Christmas  Decorations MySpace
(Christmas Decorations by Martin Stewart)

Both Facebook and Myspace are a little folksy though, and you might be after something a little more professional. You’re not too bothered about customisation — you’re constantly on the move, you don’t have time to choose furnishings, and you only need the place occasionally.

'Up in the Air' apartmentLinkedIn
(Up In The Air (2009))

Other popular communities have come and gone, each initially full of optimism. Some of them slide into neglect, leaving nothing behind but boarded up ghost towns.

Next Block on Oliver StreetFriendster
(Next Block on Oliver Street by Dorret)

Others will be levelled by their developers, cutting their losses, ignoring the wishes of the remaining residents and architectural historians who deplore this money-saving loss of culture.

Ulysses Grant Cottage (demolished) from HABSGeoCities
(Ulysses Grant Cottage (demolished) by whitewall buick)

Yet other communities, the first of their kind, the earliest homes for the masses, continue, loved by those who appreciate a certain kind of early charm.

LevittownBlogger
(Levittown by Leigha Dennis)

While Facebook today seems like it will swallow up all developable land, in the future there will be new communities to replace or complement it. Some will never quite make it beyond the initial round of funding…

California CityFailed social network
(California City on Google Maps)

… but others will flourish into societies we can’t yet quite picture. We can try to imagine what they’ll be like, these future homes and towns, but we’ll often be a little wrong.

Future homeA future home
(via Paleo-Future)

So these are the kinds of homes most people are happy with. Cul-de-sacs with standard plots and room to express themselves a little, but not enough to annoy the neighbours. You can move right in and not worry about having to do any work beyond a quick paint job.

This isn’t enough for some people though. They’re different, special, and want to live somewhere with a little “character”. The best option is to move in somewhere like WordPress.com. There’s not nearly as much community as in the Facebook suburbs, but for people who take their home a little more seriously, it’s a better choice. You can customise the place quite a bit, within certain limits, and if you pay a bit more you get even more control over the layout of your home. If you want something that expresses your modernist cool, your love of tradition and heritage, or your emo sensitivities you can probably do it at WordPress.com without even getting your hands dirty.

Celebration, Florida no. 9399WordPress.com
(Celebration, Florida no. 9399 by Eric E. Johnson)

Increasingly though, some people seem to be finding these homes a bit over the top. While they want something more “them,” more individual, than Facebook’s blandness, they don’t want something as complicated and fussy as WordPress.com. They’re single, they go out a lot, and don’t have time to do much house-keeping, never mind extend their home beyond a splash of paint. And all those rooms! They only need a little place, something simple. Tumblr and Posterous are machines for blogging. Quick, efficient, and easy to make your own.

Unite d'Habitation Berlin (1957)Tumblr
(Unite d’Habitation Berlin by ChicagoGeek)

But what if you go the other way and want something more personal than WordPress.com? What if you want to extend the place and choose from a variety of extensions others have already made? Maybe even roll up your sleeves and completely customise how it works? And, most importantly, build on your own land? You don’t want to be at the mercy of development companies who provide you with a plot that’s never quite yours, that could be taken away from you at the first sign of a downturn or change of control.

For the homeowner who wants full control but doesn’t want to build their own home — they’re not lunatics — then a prefab is a good way to start. Movable Type or the self-hosted WordPress can, like any prefabricated home, function as perfectly fine homes from day one. Once delivered and set-up, no building work is required.

Huf Haus in Thames DittonMovable Type
(Huf Haus in Thames Ditton by Andrew Marr)

But if, or when, you do want to do your own thing, they’re a fine foundation to expand. You can even build separate homes for family and friends or, should the need arise, create a creditable home for an entire company. The result will often be unrecognisable from the original structure — I’ve rarely seen behind the scenes of a Movable Type home that hasn’t been stretched to breaking point in surprising new ways.

This comes at a price of course. It takes time and experience to make a good job of this. It’s easy to start tinkering with an initially solid home and, before you know it, the whole place has collapsed and you need to get the experts in to put the place back together. There are standards, building regulations, but out here, on your own plot of land, few laws as such. You need to know what you’re doing.

There may, however, come a point where extending a prefab home isn’t enough. Maybe you have your heart set on something that’s so different from the standard model that it’s easier to start from scratch. Maybe you’re an architect who wants to demonstrate your skills on your own home. Maybe you simply enjoy building, and customising an existing building only scratches that itch so much. Eventually you realise you have to build your own home.

You need to be a little crazy or, at least, driven by a dream to build your own home. You need time and energy and a vision of what you want to achieve. Your family and friends need to be understanding while you spend all your free time working away, one part at a time, learning new skills, making mistakes, inching towards your grand design.

Grand DesignsA bespoke CMS
(from Grand Designs, Channel 4)

You’re not entirely on your own of course. There are communities of people who have trodden the same path, experts in particular trades, who are able to offer advice. Books and websites are dedicated to helping the self-builder with tips and examples. Established patterns “Design patterns”) you can follow. It will take a long time, you’ll often wonder if it’s all worth the trouble but, if you make it to the end you’ll be very pleased with your unique home. It’ll be unlike anyone else’s and will show the world you’re special.

Then there are more downsides. Your self-build home will probably require a lot of upkeep. Things will need fixing. There will be parts you wish you’d done differently. But you can’t fix them because they’re too embedded in the structure to change now.

bottle houseAnother custom-built website
(bottle house by Patti Gravel)

Eventually some self-builders will start getting the itch again. Maybe next time they could do it properly. They’ll begin investigating new techniques and styles, maybe joking about the idea with friends to test the water and, eventually, the foundations will be dug…

Which is perhaps one reason why many professionals, people who are capable of building their own home, don’t bother. They know it’s an all-consuming passion and they’re too busy demonstrating their skills in a professional capacity. They might have an online home somewhere, something they put together years ago out of now outdated materials. It still serves as a home, they’ll still give people the address, but the place is rarely tended and, if you look closely, there’s Perl hanging out of the walls.

Overgrown House, Ingram's Mill, MississippiA neglected homepage
(Overgrown House, Ingram’s Mill, Mississippi by Andy)

Comments

  • Ah Phil, lovely writing as ever. I think this should teach me about how far I’m going re-decorating my house (too far??) given that I’ve been running and developing my own CMS/Framework for over 10 years, started for myself and now used on 20+ clients…

  • Great post Phil - a perfect analogy, never thought of it like that before.

    I love creating bespoke systems but I think the trick is to work with a framework to take care of the low-level stuff. Makes it so much easier to make incremental changes so that things don’t get stagnant.

    I have to disagree with the last paragraph though - I think if you’re likely to neglect a self-built site, you’re just as likely to do the same with an off-the-shelf CMS - I suppose it comes down to what you enjoy doing - if you’re a passionate designer but not keen on the development side, there’s no point expending all that energy that you could spend on doing the design.

  • Dorian, thanks. I don’t think you’re going too far, especially if you can get paid by clients to maintain and develop the CMS!

    Kris, yes I didn’t mean to imply that it’s only self-built homes that can be neglected, but it has come out like that. I guess, though, that the most neglected homes have been neglected for so long that they were started before there were many off-the-shelf CMSs to use…

  • A lovely metaphor, beautifully illustrated - thanks Phil!

    As someone who was lucky enough to build my own house here in Ireland your writing struck a particular chord. I also love computer technologies and am currently learning a web framework so that I can create homes and (hopefully) useful shops, services and even playgrounds on the internet.

    Like building a house, having a plan and an idea of where you are going are essential to web development. Being flexible so that you can make changes as you go is also critical.

    The thing that surprised me most about building our house was just how many thousands of hours the fine details took. The more I learn about programming and user interfaces the more I realise that the same is true for creating truly effective and beautiful things on the web.

    Enjoy the building!

  • Been there, done that. It certainly is fun and worth doing. Then you eventually cave in and move to something like Tumblr or Wordpress because you are utterly fed-up with having to remember that you can’t post certain things because some stuff isn’t finished.

  • “He keeps saying he’s going to put the doors in, and fix that bathroom tap, and mend the leak in the girls’ bedroom, but I’ll believe it when I see it!”

  • This is a brilliant article.

20 Sep 2010 at Twitter

  • 08:16am: Man in the coffee shop at 9am eating a whole tub of smoked mackerel pate with a fork. I love smoked mackerel pate, but... eeeesh.
  • 08:22am: Yeah, you might be twee, cute hipsters with retro cycling helmets and old fashioned bikes, but it's still a one-way street you selfish gits.
  • 12:13pm: The metaphor train is a lot slower than I expected.
  • 03:05pm: The metaphor train has arrived at its destination. 'Should you build your own home?' http://bit.ly/aPkvSv
  • 03:19pm: I must remember that long blog posts don't necessarily "just take an hour or so". OK, Monday, let's get started!
  • 03:28pm: I'll be speaking very briefly, but with absolute authority, at @thisisplayful on Friday about Foursquare: http://bit.ly/dDhNGG #playful10
  • 05:06pm: @gilest I thought that recently, investigated a bit online, could find no evidence that crisp packet colours changed...
  • 05:42pm: @blech @gilest @megp @dracos Yes, all true. It's odd how many people (like me) are wrongly convinced that Walkers crisps changed colours.
  • 06:39pm: Watching American Football takes 75% of my attention. Reading stuff online takes 75% of my attention. I just can't quite make this work.
  • 06:57pm: @arhayward Yeah, before I tweeted that I realised I'd completely missed a touchdown somewhere.