Cara Brookins had never built anything larger than a bookcase. She had no background in architecture, contracting, plumbing or electrical work. She didn’t even watch HGTV or Bob Vila.
But as she looked at her four children sleeping in their small rental cabin in the Ozark Mountains— their temporary sanctuary from an abusive relationship she’d just escaped — Brookins decided to take on the project of her life: They would build a 3,500-square-foot, two-story home with their very own hands.
“We needed a place to live. And with everything that happened with us, it was such a natural, obvious thing that this is what we do — and I know how crazy that sounds,” Brookins tells CountryLiving.com. “There was that thing in my head that said, ‘I’m going to lose these kids, emotionally — I’m going to lose my teenagers.’”
It was 2007, and then 37-year-old Brookins had just left her abusive relationship. Along with her children, she fled to a small cottage, careful not to write down the address anywhere, so that her ex couldn’t follow them there. But every time her children heard the wheels of a car grinding past the windows, they held their breath for fear he’d found them.
Sometimes ignorance takes the place of courage.
While driving around the country to keep their minds busy one afternoon, she saw a two-story home that made her stop in her tracks. She pulled into the driveway and, without really knowing what drew her, peeked into the window and gasped at the perfect calm of the quaint, cozy home. It was big — much more than what she could afford on her programmer’s salary. But it would fit her large family, and she could imagine them finally feeling comfortable and safe there. After spending the rest of the evening daydreaming about how she could make a new life for her family in a home like that, she made the rash decision to take things into her own hands and build the house herself. After years of feeling scared and uncertain, Brookins felt strong, confident, and invincible when armed with this new plan. So, she didn’t let herself second guess it — or think about the overwhelming odds stacked against her.
But even more surprising? When she told her kids — ages 17, 15, 11, and 2 — about her wild idea the next morning, they were totally on board. The older two had been on a church trip to Mexico, where they helped build homes. But, of course, those were simple concrete buildings that they learned to erect with the help of professionals.
“The kids were like, of course, we’re going to build a house. It was as natural and obvious to them as I was to me,” she says. “We all knew it was going to be hard but had no idea what we were getting into. Sometimes ignorance takes the place of courage.”
‘What have I done?’
Brookins managed to haggle down the price on an acre of land in Arkansas. Then, she tried to convince a banker that — even though she wasn’t a contractor and wouldn’t be working with one — she deserved a construction loan.
After hearing, “Sorry, we only loan to licensed contractors” a few times, she finally found a loan officer willing to give her the money and nine months to complete the project.
As research, the family gathered around their computer to watch YouTube videos of people around the country building houses. When she felt like she had the hang of what materials would be required for the initial steps — like laying the foundation and constructing the framing — completed, she called in their first big order of supplies.