Make or buy? Home, sweet home

I don’t know which browser you are using to read this post, but I do know that if you raise your eyes a bit you will see a picture of a building — the standard icon for “home,” the starting point for our travels, whether from the home to our office, or from your home page to this web site, or an e-mail sent from your home computer to a loved one far away..

That’s the subject of this post, home — home, sweet home.

The word “home” is part of using a computer: $HOME for the “home directory,” which an be abbreviated using ~ in the shell, and is the default target of the command cd (Change Directory).

As already mentioned an icon representing a house is the standard symbol for your browser’s home page — the Bard himself foretold this centuries ago:

You had much ado to make his anchor hold:
When you cast out, it still came home.

The Winter’s Tale, I, ii, 213-214.

Browsers always have a default home. You can even tell the browser which page to use as your home page, and if you know a bit of HTML, the universal language of the web, you can build your own home page. See for example, my post Thanks Steve O’Grady. Thanks Redmonk, in which I list some of the anchors on my personal home page.

Though it’s not very hard to build a browser home page, it is much harder to build a real house.

We all face a Make/Buy decision when we need a place to live. Whether to buy or rent? Whether to buy an existing home or build a new one?

But there’s another question few people in any advanced society ever ask themselves — Should I make my home with my own hands? [1]

I met one such person as a small child, and remember marveling at the house when I visited it, wondering how someone could have all the skills needed to build house.

I met another such person almost thirty years ago — my nephew David.

David’s wife Sheila is my wife’s youngest niece. They built their house about 25 years ago. As it happens they are visiting us this weekend, and I just learned more about this unusual story so I could share it with you.

David spent his first year after college, in the late 1970’s, working in construction, renovating townhouses in Cambridge, MA. He was laid off and then spent the next several months investigating solar energy to see if there were any opportunities in that field. He was then renting his house, and had been thinking of renovating an older building to make his own home once he found his job.

His landlord, a local building contractor, knew of David’s interest in solar energy, and told David of a house he had seen in upstate New York, one that used an innovative passive-solar heating system. David met the builder, learned more about the house, and then decided he would build his own house on that model instead of doing a renovation.

His landlord happened to own a piece of property with the necessary southern exposure. The property was also hard to develop (you have to see the driveway to appreciate how steep a deriveway can be) and was uncleared.

Sheila and David spent a year — on weekends and during their vacation time — clearing the land. David then acted as his own general contractor, but did most of the work himself. He contracted out only the following:

  • excavating the large pit for the solar heating system;
  • having a mason build the foundation;
  • having a team from the builder’s company help him assemble and post-and-beam frame;
  • having a plumber do the rough plumbing;
  • having an electrician do the rough electrical work.

David did everything else with his own hands: roof, walls, floors, finished electrical, windows, finished plumbing, and so on, and so on. He did all the work on the house while also working full-time.

They lived in a trailer next to the home after it first went up. They moved in during late December the first winter when the door to the trailer froze. Parts of the house went unfinished for years; for example, the tiling in the guest bathroom went in only a few years back.

I’ve spent many delightful visits in the house and can attest to its comfort and the quality of the work. The designers of the house are still in business; see Adirondack Alternate Energy: Low Energy Requirement Homes. David reports that several people have had their own homes built after seeing his, though he knows of no one else who has done so much of their work on his own.

The solar system has worked very well. The house is about 25 miles north of Boston, and David reports it takes less than a cord of wood to heat it for the winter season (He find the wood of his own property, and uses a log splitter to make it into firewood.)

David eventually decided there wasn’t much of a future in the solar energy business in terms of starting a new career, so he found a job working for a mechanical contractor. One day the contractor told David of some problems with his payroll program, and David took the first steps on what has become his career for almost three decades, in computer software design and management.

David also has other skills. He is an expert sailor and mechanic. He ran regularly for over 20 years, often getting up at 4AM in the morning to run — with the aid of a miner’s lamp so he could see the road. He ran in six marathons, including two in Boston. His best time was 3:17. [2] His knees no longer permit long-distance running, so he has became a serious student of yoga.

David has another unusual quality, one you wouldn’t expect in a man of his talents.

He is looking for work. Indeed, he even had to fire himself from his previous job, as he related to me in a note a few weeks back:


I think you may have heard by now that I am in the market for a new job. Back in March of this year our parent company XXXXXXX was purchased by a private equity firm that is selling our division for it’s customer base. They have stopped all R&D initiatives and reduced the work force by 60%. The folks that are left are supporting the clients until a new owner is found. I had the distinct privilege of laying myself off along with several other people. I must admit the folks that are left are not having very much fun either.

All of that being said, I want to share with you my goals. I value your input and in this business I never know where my next lead is coming from.

After 28 years in the business I think my strongest asset is experience in effectively leading teams of people to accomplish a goal. That can be in either Product Management, Customer Account Management, or Data Center Operations. My specialty within any of these fields being that of change control, mitigating the risks associated with change.

I have a strong technical database background that is the lens that I view the world through. With the world ever flattening and 1 to 2 generations behind me I can no longer complete at the technical level. I believe general management and/or operations is where I can be most effective to the bottom-line.

Anyone looking for someone with his background would know almost all they need to know about him by knowing that he build his own house, with his own hands. If he can do that, think how he can help you build your business.

If you’re interested in learning more about him, please respond via comment below or email to david D-O-T shields A-T yahoo D-O-T com


1. Many people in undeveloped countries have no choice. If they need shelter they have to build it themselves.

2. As noted, David was visiting the morning I wrote this post, so I felt quite the reporter, leaving the computer to goask David what was his best marathon time, for example.

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