Learn as you go: One Albemarle homesteader does it himself

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Photo: John Robinson Photo: John Robinson

Ryan Williamson had never used a chainsaw when he began logging his own Earlysville homesite in 2005. And he was “always kind of scared of power tools,” but that didn’t stop him from building his own house and workshop the next year.

To say Williamson has a can-do spirit doesn’t quite do him justice. He’s been running his own business, fleece hat company The Mouse Works, since he was 14. When he was ready to own a house, he looked for a fixer-upper, but the housing boom was on and “the ones I could afford should have been bulldozed.” Instead, he bought 12 acres and, while living in a tent down the hill, spent a summer taking down pine trees to clear a spot for his house and garden.

The house, which Williamson shares with his wife, Laurel, is a rectangular frame structure with only three rooms: bedroom, bathroom, and workshop/kitchen/living area. Photo: John Robinson
The house, which Williamson shares with his wife, Laurel, is a rectangular frame structure with only three rooms: bedroom, bathroom, and workshop/kitchen/living area. Photo: John Robinson

“The next year I had enough money on hand to delve into building,” he said. Being self-employed, “it did not make sense to get a loan, so I was building off savings.” Cutting costs was a major deterrent to hiring out construction, but Williamson is clearly a born D.I.Y.-er. “My father’s built the two houses we lived in,” he explained. “It’s a D.I.Y. family.”

The idea was to build a hat-making shop with simple living quarters. A full-scale house would come later.

“I knew enough to keep it as simple as possible,” Williamson said. He designed a rectangular frame structure on a concrete pad, with just three rooms: bedroom, bathroom, and open workshop/kitchen/living area. He drew up plans on graph paper, using moveable paper cutouts to represent furniture and materials—like doors and windows—that he had salvaged.

Salvaged hollow-core doors make up the shelving for fleece in Williamson's studio space. Photo: John Robinson
Salvaged hollow-core doors make up the shelving for fleece in Williamson’s studio space. Photo: John Robinson

“I was working with free or dirt-cheap products, so it was like, ‘Where can I put this?’” he remembered. He’d feed his builder friends dinner in exchange for advice. “Most of my male friends had worked in carpentry and I never did because I was sewing,” he said.

Williamson wasn’t afraid to ask about leftovers at construction sites, nor to engage in some after-hours trespassing. “I’d go into houses being built and look at how things went together. A lot of times the plans would be out too, so I’d look at the plans.”

Working solo about half the time, the other half with help from an experienced friend, Williamson got the workshop/house put together in a summer, living again in a camp on the property. “I was super focused,” he said. His wife Laurel, at that time a friend, added: “We didn’t see Ryan for two years.”

 

Digging in

As you’d expect, the building process was not without its snags. A major one occurred when, because of a miscalculation, the concrete pad ended up sunk a couple of feet lower into the ground than Williamson had planned. This meant that the side where he’d meant to put the main entrance was now partially earth-bermed.

“I was practically in tears when I realized,” he said. But he rearranged the floor plan and soldiered on.

Part of the square footage is given over to The Mouse Works: a large cutting table, a long table for industrial sewing machines, and shelving to store bolts of fleece. As in a loft, having few walls makes the living area feel spacious.

Sourwood Farm yields produce all year-round. Photo: John Robinson
Sourwood Farm yields produce all year-round. Photo: John Robinson

A porch on the west side—added in 2008 —shades the interior from afternoon sun and serves as an outdoor workshop and de facto loading dock for hats. Williamson designed for energy-efficiency: solar power and hot water, radiant floor heat, and good insulation (some of it scraps of fleece from hats!). “Our home is easy to heat and cool,” said Laurel. The two use only about a quarter-cord of wood per year for supplemental heat, and make enough solar power to sell energy back to the grid.

Williamson hired out a few tasks, like drywalling and well-digging. “A lot of things I should have hired out—it didn’t save that much,” he said. “But for others I would never hire somebody.” Acid-staining the concrete floor himself, for example, cost $300 instead of $2,500.

As it turned out, he was able to move in—sans exterior siding—just three days before hitting the road to sell hats at craft shows, which he does most weekends throughout autumn.

The D.I.Y. approach has allowed Williamson to add custom touches—like plumbing hidden inside a log that spans the bathroom ceiling. (“I cut the tree and in 45 minutes it was installed,” he said.) The house is a testament to resourceful creativity, such as the salvaged hollow-core doors that make up the fleece shelves.

Outside, too, a spirit of self-reliance animates the homestead. Hardy kiwis grow on tall trellises, beehives hunker on the hill, and shiitake mushrooms sprout from logs in the woods.

The Williamsons look forward to building a larger house in years to come, but for now they’re enjoying the experience of a combined live/work space. “During the season, I often work until midnight, but we can still talk,” said Williamson. Laurel captured the way this building is so much an expression of its owners. “When people come and visit, it’s intriguing,” she said. “‘And it’s a good way to introduce them to us.”

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