Home & Design August 31, 2015
Homemade Home
A Couple’s Foray into Affordable Building

The handmade tile came from Erin Griffith’s great-grandmother. The oak flooring and beams were left over from her grandparents’ projects. She got glass blocks to insert into her staircase at the Building Materials Thrift Store.

Erin Griffith and Jake Chaney’s new 2,200-square-foot home is a poster child for resourcefulness: from dumpster diving to save money on building materials, to Internet surfing to learn about structural insulated panels for the walls.

Their home near Old Cutters in Hailey cost about $50 a square foot for materials, compared with nearby properties that they were told cost between $200 and $300 a square foot, including labor. 

And they gained a treasure trove of memories as they worked every day for nearly two years with Erin’s parents to build a home from the ground up.

Erin, a waitress at Ketchum Grill, and Jake, who works for Wiseguy Pizza, wanted their own home. But they couldn’t find a suitable home that they could afford.

So, the two quit their previous jobs to build on a lot that Erin’s parents had purchased a decade earlier. It is a few blocks from where Jake’s parents—Dale and Lisa Chaney—still live.

The couple started designing the home of their dreams on Christmas Day 2013. They mapped the house around their baby grand piano. They started with one story, and then added another. And they provided walk-in storage for backcountry skiing and biking gear.

When they had finished, they took the draft to Erin’s parents, John and Jini Griffith, who made suggestions and sent the couple back to the drawing board.

“Both my father and grandfather were builders, so building runs in the family,” said Jini, who remembers mixing roof tar as a youngster. “Some of my best memories are working alongside my father. John and I helped him build 10 homes in the Flagstaff-Sedona area. This is the fifth home we’ve built here.”

Erin used heart-shaped stones her mother has collected since Erin was a toddler for drawer handles. Jake refinished doors that were rejects from other building projects. They bought ceiling lights at The Advocates thrift store, The Attic. And they scoured garage sales and dumpsters for cabinets and other building materials.

“We’ve got our favorite dumpsters—we’re always looking for stuff,” Jini said. Erin handcrafted a slide-out chopping block atop a compost and garbage bin for those days when there isn’t enough room on the kitchen counter. She designed a wine holder and endowed cabinets with decorative carvings. And the couple hand-poured a concrete countertop, inserting decorative copper elements into it. 

Erin built mirror frames herself, installed hand-painted Japanese flower tiles she found at a garage sale around the vanity and installed toilet roll holders that her father had made. Then she and Jake built their bed out of cherry wood they found at a garage sale, designing it so they could put their heads either way and leaving space underneath for the dog’s bed.

Erin’s parents helped them wire and plumb the house. They covered the exterior with corrugated metal they got from a potato barn. And they spray-painted it to give it a contemporary sheen.

“It was cool watching them take control in all phases of construction,” said Jini. “That’s how John and I survived in this Valley—by knowing how to fix what’s broken and how to build things ourselves instead of calling someone to do it for us. The only parts they hired out were blowing insulation in the ceiling and pouring the base layer of the concrete flooring over the radiant tubing.”

The toughest part was coloring the concrete floor.

“Each person had a different trowel style and it looked blotchy at first,” Erin recalled. “We worked on it several days in a row, and it wasn’t working. I cried big splotches of tears and completely ruined it. Finally, I shooed everyone out, had Jake mix the colorant, and I did it as fast as I could.”

The couple strung lights that shine through the glass blocks inserted into the wooden stairs. And they installed such energy-saving features as a solar panel and R50 insulation.  And they spent “a ton of time” researching sustainable building techniques like sealing the house from small air leaks.

“The boiler was brand new in the box but ‘used’ so we got it for a quarter of the price,” John said.

Jini looked around at the family room that houses the piano and an L-shaped couch that Erin designed to allow space for pullout baskets containing knick-knacks.

“This is truly a family room. My father made the tables. My mother made the tile for the top of those tables,” she said. “I could feel my parents’ presence throughout. Every time I picked up a tool, I thought, ‘This was my Dad’s tool. This was the way Dad would’ve done this.’ ” 

The couple spent the summer building a patio in the xeriscape yard, which features plants growing out of hay bales and raised beds made of logs. Next on the agenda: building a greenhouse.

“This is the first time I’ve been involved in something like this from the ground up, and it was an awesome experience,” Jake said.  “Not only do we get to live close to our parents, but we get to live in a place where we want to live—with its backcountry skiing, biking and hunting. Not many people like us, who are 30 years old, can say they’ve built a home from the ground up—and be debt-free, besides.”

Erin agreed. “There were days during the framing process that were so hot I lay down, fully clothed, in the canal in the backyard. And there were days during plumbing that we were so cold we could barely work. But everything that was put into this house was built with love and a certain pride that only comes with the knowledge that you did it yourself.”

This article appears in the Fall 2015 Issue of Sun Valley Magazine.