“The Joel Salatin of Homebuilding”: Revisiting Clay Chapman’s multi-century, $80/sq. ft. house

“You [..] have the distinct privilege of proactively participating in shaping the world your children will inherit.”  — Joel Salatin, author and renegade farmer

Anyone who’s paid even modest attention to what’s been happening on the food scene over the past five or six years has surely heard of Joel Salatin. Featured prominently in Michael Pollan’s Omnivore’s Dilemma and in the movie Food, Inc., author of numerous books of his own, and celebrated by chefs, locavores and organic activists alike, Salatin has become a sort of patron saint for the progressive ag movement. Half traditionalist, half innovator, he’s not so much wedded to the ways of the past as he is unwilling to ignore the wisdom they have to offer.

Joel Salatin, author and renegade farmer.

By all appearances, Salatin seems to view himself in the context of a larger continuum, dirtying his hands from day to day in an ongoing effort to move an historic body of knowledge forward. To acknowledge and build upon it, and all he asks is the freedom to do so. To experiment. To innovate. And to serve an ever-growing pool of demand.

His quote above specifically addresses that pool and the individual food consumers that comprise it. His point: for most of us, our power is in our purchase decisions. And in terms of food — from boutique farmers and urban farms to farm-to-table cuisine to weekly markets popping up all over — it’s clear that the changing tenor of those decisions has, over the past several years, moved the needle to some degree.

In short, food has shown us that, with enough people plugging in, bringing their own voice, choices, money, passion, creativity and labor to the effort, even the most unwieldy of ships can begin to change course.

By offering workable alternative methods and not just criticism, Salatin has inspired us to question our relationship with food, one of our most basic human needs. But what about the other: shelter? If only there were a Joel Salatin of homebuilding too. Laboring away somewhere. Questioning the underlying principles of conventional construction. Seeking to leverage, and build upon, the timeless lessons of our built environment.

Turns out, maybe there is.

Columbus revisited

To be honest, the comparison I’m setting up here wasn’t my idea. It actually came from a PlaceShakers reader named Daniel who commented on my April profile of a back-to-basics housing experiment taking place outside Columbus, Georgia. For those who missed that piece, it told the story of artist and craftsman Clay Chapman’s emerging effort to build a custom, multi-century, structural masonry and timber frame home for $80 a foot, a price largely accessible to the middle class.

The Adams House, as designed.

Goal one was proving it could be done, so that the challenges, innovations and lessons learned could be compiled as a sort of proof-of-concept case study. Goal two was getting the story out and scaling up interest in the hopes that kindred spirits — equally impassioned madmen with similar ambitions — would emerge and attempt similar projects in other parts of the country.

The story sparked plenty of discussion in forums across the web. Most evident among it was admiration and enthusiasm but, as is to be expected among designers and craftsmen, there was also a healthy dose of well-founded skepticism, especially as it related to regionally-unique challenges such as climate and codes.

But that was then, when talk was abundant and results scarce, and this is now. Today, there’s a fully constructed shell on the property and a far better sense of what’s possible.

Bean counting

Revisiting the site one sunny afternoon a few weeks ago, where the aforementioned shell of a house now sits, that was at the core of my first question: Are you on budget? According to Chapman, with a cursory examination at this middle-of-everything juncture, he seems to be, at least in the sense that the items he’s priced out have come in according to expectations. The ultimate price, whether he hits it or not, will include his profit as designer and builder and provides for a turnkey deliverable, complete with fireplace and all systems and appliances. It will not, however, include the cost of land. If it did, the same house might average closer to $90 or $100/foot — still in-line with conventional practices — or maybe more in sought-after, in-town areas.

Chapman makes no suggestion that this price comes easy or is easily replicated. As noted last spring, he plays the role of designer, project manager and laborer all rolled into one. He sleeps on site, as do the other craftsmen and laborers filtering in and out. He knows his circumstances and approach represent more than just a tweaking of business as usual.

That’s okay, though. Part of what he’s doing is documenting what it takes to hit his mark. Whether or not there’s a critical mass of people willing to employ similar methods can be determined thereafter. Chapman has no illusions that he’ll make any headway with the conventional building industry any more than Joel Salatin expects a consulting gig from Tyson Foods. But at the same time, he’s hopeful that he’s not alone. That there are others — producers and consumers alike cut from similar cloth — that will, in time, add up to the prospect of change.

As Salatin has noted in regards to his own efforts, “Certainly, it’s not for everybody.. But what I’m saying is that we need the freedom to opt out of the system.” Chapman sees similar prospects. “We started out with hope and a hunch,” he says, “and now we’ve got proof that, in certain circumstances, this is possible. Yes, it’s a niche but, like local and organic food, it’s a niche with the potential to grow.”

Also the subject of discussion our first time around was energy efficiency, as commenters from colder climes questioned the insulation value of brick. Chapman’s quick to point out that he’s building a house for the southeast and that his efforts carry no suggestion that what he’s doing is directly transferable to other contexts but, at the same time, he also questions the methods by which R-Values are calculated.

The insulating value of a single brick may be easily measured but, in Chapman’s experience, the on-the-ground performance of a wall three brick deep, with all its commensurate mortar, becomes more than just the sum of its parts — that the regulating nature of its thermal mass performs better than just one brick times three. In his heart, that’s what he believes to be true but, in his head, he wants to know for sure and wants his completed house to serve as a laboratory for finding out. To that end, he’s initiated discussions to involve Clemson University’s National Brick Research Center in the hopes that more precise, real-world performance metrics can be brought to the conversation. Leveraging such data, Chapman and others will be better able to determine what kind of interventions might serve the challenges of colder areas and how such measures might be achieved affordably and, especially in terms of materials, sustainably. More on that in a future post.

The completed shell, seen as you come down the winding drive.

Profile showing the side entryway. Weather-treated, stained, replaceable “boots” over exposed rafter tails are evident above the second story windows.

One of the house’s four tapered masonry corners.

Tools of the trade.

The central fireplace, seen as you walk in the front door.

Chimney, extending through the upstairs master bedroom.

Roof supports. Note wrapped ends where timber meets masonry. Voids will be filled with spray foam insulation and paneled over.

The basement’s wood-fired heating assembly. In operation, it will generate enough heat, passing through grates to the first and second floors, to render the home’s HVAC a secondary system.

The temporary view from the basement through the first and second floors.

Project designer and mason, Clay Chapman, pictured with his ever-present assistant.

Cabin in the woods: Clay’s sleeping quarters, a hundred yards or so from the house-in-progress.

Plenty of sleeping room for additional craftsmen, whenever they’re on site. Y’all come.

What’s it all add up to?

I’m not a designer or builder or, for that matter, a research scientist, though my work has ties to all those fields. What I am is a fan — a fan of what Clay’s attempting to do — because I’m one of those people whose beliefs, whose underlying principles and motivations, are tied in some way to his efforts.

I believe our built environment should be built to last. Not just in terms of timeless and sturdy materials detached from technologies and fabrication methods that may be unique to temporary circumstances, but in ways that secure and hold our affection. A human and humane architecture reflecting culture and climate, the lessons of history, and our insatiable desire to continually build and improve upon our present condition.

It’s a tall order but, not so long ago, so was dropping by the supermarket to fill your fridge with food produced outside the CAFO system or grown without pesticides.

I want this to work. I want others — similar madmen in other parts of the country — to take what Clay learns and adapt it to their own circumstances. I want a wider array of obstacles encountered and overcome. I want university architecture programs to send interns out to Clay’s next project, a la Taliesin West, so they can sleep in tents, lay bricks, and experience, taste and feel an entirely different building proposition. I want buyers of like mind in all parts of the country to make their presence known, so all the currently unfulfilled craftsmen and builders out there — unable to forego making a living — will have just a bit more confidence to take the leap.

Will I get what I want? That remains to be seen. But I do know that I can make a contribution by helping get the word out. And, if you consider this as important as I do, so can you.

Follow his efforts on Facebook and on the Hope for Architecture blog (where the real depth of details gets discussed). Get in touch with him. Hell, if you find yourself in middle Georgia, stop on by. This is how movements are made. There’s no question that he’ll finish this particular house. What’s unknown, however, is how and where the connections will form to inspire and propel the next one.

And the one after that. And the one after that. And the one after that…

Scott Doyon

If PlaceShakers is our soapbox, our Facebook page is where we step down, grab a drink and enjoy a little conversation. Looking for a heads-up on the latest community-building news and perspective from around the web? Click through and “Like” us and we’ll keep you in the loop.

Comments

  1. Cole Black says:

    Clay Chapman’s work is timeless and speaks for itself. His work is beauty and natural – My husband David and I stand in awe. What a Blessing to have such a frontiersman in our midst to bring quality and value to a clasping world. I hope University programs will take advantage of his research, knowledge and skill so that these can be passed on to future generations.

  2. The architecture is great, as is the craft and attention to detail. I heard about this project a few months ago and am glad to see it moving forward. I have to say though that the thermal performance of these brick walls is going to be disappointing.

    I live in a 100 year old apartment with 12 inch thick brick exterior walls, and quite frankly they suck thermally. They get quite cold in the winter and even though they don’t feel warm to the touch in the summer they just make the whole place feel stuffy and uncomfortable. Leaving a 2 inch gap in the middle of the wall to fill with spray foam will yield better performance than all the brick combined. I’m a little surprised that it’s necessary to experiment with this, as there’s a huge stock of similarly built houses from the late 19th and early 20th century to analyze.

    The benefits of thermal mass are well known and utilized in desert climates with large temperature swings between day and night. Such is not the case anywhere east of the Mississippi River for the most part. Temperatures have to swing above and below room temperature for it to be of much use, but in most non-arid places that doesn’t happen except when it’s mild enough that you can just have the windows open anyway. In summer it’s miserably hot and humid all day and doesn’t cool down much at night, and in winter it’s cold and windy all the time with short days and more cloud cover. Also, to moderate temperatures on a 24 hour cycle requires walls that are at least twice as thick if not more. My 12 inch brick wall only shifts the peak of heat gain a few hours farther into the evening. All the sun soaked up by the wall in the late afternoon and evening bleeds through around bedtime when it’s still way too hot out to open up windows. In the winter there’s not enough sun to warm up the walls so they just stay cold all the time.

    In the particular situation of this house it may not be quite so bad as the winters are warmer and the house looks well shaded by the surrounding trees. Still, the lousy thermal performance of solid masonry actually helps its longevity to some extent. Because it bleeds heat out all winter, the walls don’t go through freeze/thaw cycles to the extent veneers do, and without sheathing or vapor barriers, any moisture that does get into the wall from a driving rain or vapor migration can easily dissipate. Still, is that worth it?

    • Jeffrey, thanks for the input. It’s especially relevant, I think, because it raises questions associated with affordable permanent-build ambitions and presents certain trade-offs that, admittedly, may require a shifting of priorities. Whether something is worth it is certainly subjective and whether or not there’s a broader market for the ideas I’m exploring is one of things we’re testing with this effort.

      So far, my previous structural masonry buildings in the southeast haven’t required additional interventions and, in terms of both resident reports and utility costs, seem to be performing nicely. That’s helpful but, as Scott mentioned in this post, what I really need moving forward is hard measures, which is one of the goals of this project.

      Since I don’t know the context, I can’t really speak to your particular apartment. But you touched on some of the other things, such as orientation and use of landscape for shading, that we utilize as part of the design process. Construction methods and context , addressed together make for the best solutions.

      As you say, there’s no shortage of similar old buildings to analyze and that fact alone fills me with a lot of optimism. That is, whatever shortcomings exist in their interior performance, they’ve provided insufficient incentive for turning those buildings over to the wrecking ball. Many have been updated with interventions over time, reflecting new knowledge or technologies, but most important to me is that the buildings themselves remain.

      
Finding that sweet spot where something is as close to permanent as we can make it, operates comfortably for its inhabitants and, most importantly, is accessibly priced for working folks, is a helluva quest. But it’s increasingly important, I think, towards challenges (economic and environmental) that may await us in the future. That, to me, makes it worth it.

      Thanks for the perspective.

  3. Marc Brenman says:

    Is this a joke? To build a brick house requires highly skilled bricklayers, which raises the labor cost way above what is stated. Plus the cost of quality brick. And all that detail work? This article is silly.

    • PlaceMakers says:

      I think you’ve summed up the conventional wisdom pretty well, Marc, which Clay’s purposefully taking on with this effort. Obviously anything can be asserted, which is why, rather than simply saying something is possible, or agreeing with naysayers that it’s not, he’s actually proving its possibility by doing it. That’s the really interesting part.

      His laborers and craftsmen are paid competitively and his costs are on track. Does he present a model that a conventional builder could simply pick up and run with? Definitely not. But what he is showing is that, for the right person committed to a particular methodology, it’s workable. –SD

  4. Hi Scott. I absolutely love what Clay is doing and have been following this project for the last few months.

    How do you suggest that buyers of like mind make their presence known? How do we even find the unfulfilled crafsmen and builders?

    • PlaceMakers says:

      Wow, Erica. Great question, and not one I’ll likely have a satisfying answer to. The closest I can get, I suppose, is that I don’t see these things happening in a linear fashion so much as in a confluence of contributing factors. For example, you can’t envision who you, as a potential buyer, could even reach out to but maybe, as Clay’s story spreads, providers of similar mind will begin to emerge, giving you a focal point. Sort of a “one of them emerges, then one of you emerges, then another of them and more of you and so on” scenario.

      Not saying that’s what will happen, of course, Just a reasonable possibility, so long as Clay’s story connects with and inspires enough people. What he’s exploring is a complete paradigm shift, which means there’s no real road map for what to expect.

      Your best bet in the short term might be contacting Clay directly, as he’ll likely be the lightning rod for any inquiry by curious providers. He may be the most viable point of connection, at least here in the near term. Good luck. –SD

  5. Excellent article … Extraordinarily intriguing, especially for me.
    We are in the midst of a more conventional 3200 sq ft construction project, a tear down and rebuild in a northern suburb of Philadelphia ( hardie board, azek trim, traditional framing, standing seam metal and architectural shingle roof, etc. ) Our goal was pretty much the same … Could we do the whole job (4400 sq ft inc. basement) for $300,000?
    At this point … Probably not, but we will see.

    What Clay is doing, bucking conventional wisdom to show what is, or at least may be possible, reminds me of one of my favorite literary pieces … Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena.
    Remember Clay, it is not the critic who counts.
    Continue to spend yourself in this worthy cause … And may you someday soon earn your triumph of high achievement.
    Best to you, my friend

    Carl

Trackbacks

  1. [...] Enter Clay Chapman, stage right, with his concept of an $80 per square foot custom, multi-century ho… This is a beautiful home – I’m drooling over the fireplace alone. If we were ever to build, we would absolutely be looking more closely at this concept. [...]

  2. [...] (A lot has happened with the house since this story posted. Read the next chapter here.) [...]

  3. [...] 8:30PM Original Green | Hope for Architecture | Free Peery Hotel, 110 W Broadway Scott Doyon, with Steve Mouzon and Clay Chapman [...]

  4. [...] I’ve been working on for some time. As PlaceShakers regulars know, I’ve repeatedly featured the work of Clay Chapman, a designer and brick mason working to create a model of near-permanent construction at a [...]

  5. [...] For the past 18 months, PlaceShakers has been covering the work of my friend, Clay Chapman, and his quest to build a near-permanent, structural masonry home for a price accessible to the middle class. Early on, I wrote this introduction and, later, when he was well into the process, I posted a follow-up. [...]

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