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How are you contributing to the "American Dream?"

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By Grant in Blacksburg, VA on 8/3/2008

The American Dream...

I'm going to get on my soap box for a little bit.  And if you take the time to read this, when you are done I'd like you to reply and answer how you are contributing to the American Dream...

When America was founded, the American Dream was understood much differently than it is today.  To the founders of our nation, the American Dream meant that social castes were no longer unchangeable.  People could come to America, no matter who they were (that was the dream that took the Civil Rights Movement to more fully realize!), struggle, toil, and sacrifice, and as a result their children could have a better life than they had.  Part of that dream, but only a part of it, was building and actually owning their own home...

As part of the broader American Dream, Americans invested in long-term infrastructure that would benefit future generations.  Sanitation infrastructure was built in a manner to last for 200 years or more.  Our fore-parents invested a little extra beyond their own immediate needs in order to benefit the future.  Public buildings like capital buildings were built with the expectation to last essentially forever.  Our fore-parents invested in public parks, bridges, and other social infrastructure meant to be sustainable and last forever for the benefit of posterity.  Those with the resources to do so also intentionally built their homes to benefit future generations, as well.  The American Dream was always actually about making things better for future generations!

Somewhere after about WWII, the American Dream was mutated beyond recognition...  Americans stopped caring so much about the future.  [Perhaps seeing life end prematurely all around you causes one to think less about the future and more about living life to the fullest today?] We started consuming everything those who went before us left to us without any plans to replace it.  We started changing our design standards to only build for our own benefit.  Long-life infrastructure standards went from 200 year design down to 50-year design in order to achieve a cost-savings of typically no more than 20% upfront cost difference.  But the life-cycle cost difference becomes four-fold upfront, and with present future value analysis, the life cycle cost difference is probably 10 times higher. The attitude became "Who cares if future generations will benefit as long as we reap the rewards today?"  These days, ask the average American what the "American Dream" is and they will start spouting off a high personal standard of living that amounts to nothing more than selfish dreams...  This isn't what the American Dream started out as.

We stopped investing for the benefit of the future.  We used up everything that was left to us without planning for its sustainability for the future.  And we began deficit spending using up the wealth of the future.  Why?  So that we could selfishly enjoy the greatest standard of living the world has ever known and probably will ever get to know.

What does this have to do with O-Bs and why isn't it off-topic?  Because many of us here have a different vision.  We don't want a "McMansion" with its shoddy construction standards and "planned obsolescence."  Many of us actually want to build houses that not only benefit us, but benefit future generations as well.

For a 20% increase in upfront construction costs we can select materials that will last 200 years or more, versus materials that will only last one lifetime, if we are lucky.  We can also incorporate energy efficient design and green building principles to conserve resources for future benefit.  For many of us, the only way to get a house built this way is to owner-build.  Contractors in my rural community just don't build houses this way on their own, because the average American simply doesn't care whether their house lasts beyond their own lifetime.

I, and many others in this forum, are going to spend a little bit more to leave something for the benefit of future generations.  Many of us don't have that "little bit more" to spend in cash, so we are spending it via sweat equity.  Most importantly though, we are recapturing the real meaning of the American Dream.  It's not just about building a home for ourselves; it is about leaving a multi-generational legacy that benefits the future as well as the present.  Its about building houses that will last and that will conserve precious resources so that future generations can add to what we have left them, so they can continue making an even "better" life than we currently enjoy.

When building our own homes, we have a unique opportunity to contribute to the "real" American Dream and leave a legacy that future generations can have the privilege of continuing to build upon.  If the values and principles that America holds dear are to be preserved for the benefit of all mankind, then we must return to the true American Dream.  Build a house that will benefit the future as well as your own present and America will remain stronger because of your contribution.

So, how are you contributing to the American Dream?



[NOTE: A PBS documentary entitled "Liquid Assets: The Story of Our Water Infrastructure" will be released nationally in October.  I provided the initial concept development, helped pitch it to Penn State Public Broadcasting, and helped make it happen.  One of the themes is the criticality of ensuring the sustainability of our sanitation infrastructure.  I encourage everyone to watch it. 


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By James in Lemoore, CA on 10/26/2008

Similar. I intent to build a modest 2,500 square foot house (that includes the garage), but build it right. By right I mean all crowns of a board all the same way so the wall looks straight. REAL hand crafted kitchen cabinets and built-ins by me. Real solid wood wall paneling. A SQUARE FOUNDATION. Shooting for perfection instead of what the state allows. Our forefathers held a standard way up high and thus, unobtainable. Therefore, everything you did, you fell short of, but it was the best you could do. Today, people in general, keep their standards in the gutter, therefore, when you fail, its ok, because you didn't lick scum out of the gutter. I plan to align the house to the path of the sun. I just plan on doing everything that everyone scoffs at and says "that would be a waste of money." I don't care. I am going to do it because it is RIGHT! Sometimes, I can't even tell you why it is right sometimes, just that it feels right to do it that way. Once done though, a funny thing happens. Everyone wants what you now have, or wants you to build them one, except they want to pay the Oak Liquidators price. WHY is it not important enough to do it right? I pass the soap box now.


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By Joe in Albany, NY on 5/12/2009

The American Dream

To own a home on a piece of land that we can call our own, and do with it as we see fit.

I built in '95, mainly to give my wife and children a serene place to grow. A small lot bordered by a creek and 18 acres of woods on three sides. It took a year to gain a variance for my 3/4 acre lot, so not to upset the balance of nature.  The next day, we applied for a home equity loan on my existing house. This was in my calculation, enough to get me halfway there on the build.

The first day, myself and a chainsaw, I knew it would be quite a trip. Friends pitched in, and after awhile the small lot was clear. The excavator was next. It turned out that the lot sat on a shale embankment, and was nearly made to order. He scraped only a few inches to reach my footing elevation. The American Dream.

Building the house was my job. Sweat equity was my pay. Absolutely everything I could do myself, I did, as did my wife. I also worked deals with the subs on my labor. I labored for the excavator, the framer, the electrician, and the roofer. I'm a mason by trade, but through this process gained knowledge, and lowered our cost.

The house is modest, but built strong with 2x6 stud walls and 16 OC roof truss. Brick and synthetic stucco (EIFS) on top. Salvaged and re-cut limestone steps. It's 30x40 Colonial, with a finished area in a walk-out basement for about 3,000 ft living space. Total cost was just over $100,000K. American sweat.

Our daughter now married, and the son finishing his first year of collage, we're proud of what we've built, and built it to last. With the empty nest, we're planning on selling soon, trading for a small farmhouse or some such, but whoever gets the place will get a quality home with good vibes.

Admittedly tougher in 2009, the American build-your-own dream is still attainable with logic, planning, perseverance and hard work. Dream on.

Over the last few years, they've leveled the 18 acres save a couple hundred feet from the creek, to build a mosque. So much for balance, oh well.


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By Kenneth in Lees Summit, MO on 5/13/2009

I don't think I would ever shoot for perfection, as you identify, it is simply unattainable. And what are the side effects of aiming for the unattainable perfection? Money expenditures, time expenditures, and these can lead to resentment and frustration. Why tackle a project that you know nothing is ever good enough -- seems like this leads to resentment as well. This doesn't mean you shouldn't hold yourself and your subcontractors to high standards. It just means you have to understand tolerances and how to apply these tolerances.

As to doing something because its right; I think right includes a balance between economics, engineering feasibility, and time. Notice that cost is a very important part of this equation. You can always do something more expensive; that doesn't mean its better or even right, sometimes it truly is just a waste of money.


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By Mary in PA on 5/14/2009

In reflecting on a recent experience I had as a just-starting-out O-B, I found the timing of this post interesting. I wasn’t going to post this experience – it was just one brief meeting and no big deal – but some of it stuck with me. And the broader themes of what it meant to me have definitely been on my mind – especially in the times we’re living in now. So I’ve taken a stab at posting it here in this thread.


My husband and I own 30 acres in a farming area and hope to start construction in 2010, with some site prep in late 2009. As we get closer to our actual scratching-in-the-dirt day – I’ve been having more occasions to speak with professionals about our project – architect, survey company, zoning officer, etc. While we’re waiting on plans from the architect, I’ve been following up some other items like insurance and legal stuff.

Before we actually start any on-site work, I wanted to get straightened out on the mechanic’s lien topic. Since it is state specific, and seemed pretty important (to me), I made an appointment with an attorney for some advice and assistance. Due to my business, I have an established relationship with a firm in town where we currently live. But I wanted to form a new relationship with a local attorney near the property. I figured this would be the person we could use from here on out. We would be supporting the local community and would start to build connections within that community – all good. So I called and made an appointment (for which I would be charged – this was not an off-the-clock initial meeting). I showed up at the appointed time with my list of questions in hand, and expected to have a businesslike meeting.


About five minutes into the meeting the lawyer stopped me and said he only agreed to see me to stop me from making a huge mistake and demanded to know what my background was, and “where did you ever get the idea you could build your own house?” I wouldn’t have been bothered by him questioning our effort or offering an opinion in a civil and professional manner – that has happened with others (one of the architects I interviewed, and even some family members). But I was taken off-guard by his strongly adversarial tone and body language (arms crossed over his chest). I freely admitted a lack of hands-on construction experience but assured him that this wasn’t something we were jumping into, or doing just because of the economic downturn – but rather that we had been planning for years and that I had even left my full-time job to work on this project. He replied that I didn’t know what I was doing, that building was complex, that it took knowledge and experience. I agreed that there certainly would be challenges and offered that we would be using the experience of our subs to get good quality work, just as a person does when they have a repair/remodel done on their home. I asked him if he had never heard of someone building their own home, an owner-builder. To my astonishment, he stated that HE had built his own home! Now, I just really didn’t know what to say – I was trying to figure in my mind; did he have a bad experience? Does he think he has a special skill that I do not? Hmm... I could see this wasn’t going to work (using him as our attorney). I was considering how best to respond when he blurted out – and this is what stuck in my mind after the meeting – “Really... you should have more respect!  <implied toward the building trade/GCs>. You’re like one of those people who tries to do a will off the Internet and then comes to a lawyer to straighten it out after it is all gone wrong.” I was left speechless – and if you knew me – you would find that somewhat surprising. ;-)

The meeting ended shortly thereafter – I didn’t tell him off or anything like that - I wasn’t raised that way. My father says there is never an excuse to be discourteous. And I didn’t see any point in trying to convince him of anything regarding O-B issues – there are other attorneys. This meeting was a waste of time, a wrong turn – it happens.


As he walked me to the front door (somewhat like I was being kicked out, I guess) – I couldn’t help but have this very clear impression that this is what it must be like in a society with a caste system. I can’t really say why that weird thought popped into my mind – it just did. That whole thing with me “disrespecting the profession” by building my own home. I just don’t get that. His worldview and mine must be miles and miles apart. Does a person who repairs his own car disrespect mechanics? Does a person who grows their own food disrespect a farmer? In my mind, these self-starters have more respect for the accomplished members of a profession, because they personally know the effort of doing a piece of that work.


And then a couple of days after this wacky appointment, I see that same idea (caste system) mentioned in the original post on this thread, and a request for input on the American Dream. Well, finally, my two cents.


The American Dream - The freedom to:
Develop my God-given talents through diligent study and effort.

Enjoy the success of my efforts and bear the responsibilities of my failures.

Share the fruit of my labors as I see fit; with my family, community and country.

Pass to future generations as I see fit, the value I have added; be it held in the stewardship of land, the construction of quality, useful buildings, the development of business enterprises or other means.


I realize that when I take in the view from the knoll on our property – I am standing on the shoulders of my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents. It was their sacrifice, their effort, their belief in the worth of those to come, that has truly made this possible for me. I hope to contribute in my own way (building this house, being an active steward of this land) according to the high standard demonstrated by those who have gone before me.


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By Rachal in Janesville, CA on 5/14/2009

The American Dream.  This is deep stuff guys.

To hell with the "American Dream" that was not for people like me.  I've spent my whole life showing myself that the way people think is garbage.

"A family can't live on one income like the old days."  Yes we can, but we are not willing to sacrifice our flat screen and cable TV or our new car or boat. 

"A woman can't go into combat, because it will deteriorate the morale of the troops."  Once again, crap.

"You can't build a house, you don't know how."  True, but I'm getting there.

You wouldn't believe the things that people said I couldn't do in reference to building a house.  "You're in California, so you'll have to pay $3,000 for engineered plans."  False.  "You'll have to get a loan because you only have one year to finish the house."  False. 

Every day I hear new "can't's" and my purpose in life is to get creative and dispel those "can't's". 

I keep getting the same "advice" from people about equity.  If you do this or do that it will raise/lower your equity.  I don't care.  I do what I do not because of retail value, but because I want a house that is going to work for me and my family for the next 40 years.

The American Dream is located at my grandmother's house.  Her husband built it 60 years ago to raise their family in.  She still lives in it, and will continue to live in it till the day she dies.  I can't believe that we (as a society) have reduced the 'sacred' home into a consumer good.  I guess that is good for contractors and banks.  Don't we lose something when we can't care for our home as if it is a part of us.  I don't want to be a consumer, I want a house that will grow old with me.  

On the other hand,  I am surprised by how much freedom I actually have in this process.  The county and state have not put restrictions on me as I expected.  I have heard horror stories from so many people and they have shown to be false.  I love America and its freedom.  Maybe the American Dream is the freedom to decide what your 'Dream' is?  


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