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Thursday, August 15, 2013

Celebrating the 24/7 barrier

Thanks folks for helping "Build A House Yourself" channel break the 24/7 barrier this month.  Finally, we're getting enough views and minutes watched to cover every minute of every day.  Now I finally have a great comeback if anyone ever accuses me of being lazy...

Thanks again and I hope you all are here when we celebrate the next milestone which is 100K views on one video.  It's one of the first videos I ever uploaded.  It's not particularly instructional, but it is kinda funny.  Please enjoy:

Monday, August 12, 2013

Notes Truss Design: Mixing scrap 1x4 and 2x4 material to make 18 foot wide trusses

Trusses are awesome for we "do-it-yourself" people!   What I love most about trusses is that I can use scraps of almost anything to build full sized structures ... all I need is a large quantity of scraps ... and time ... and nails.  My dad once joked about a garage that I built that I had more nails in it than wood ... and if you measured by cost, he was right.  The wood was free, but not the nails.

A YouTube viewer asked about building an 18 foot wide cover out of scrap 2x4 and 1x4 material.  This blog post is to document my thoughts on the subject for the benefit of all.

There are at least two handy ways to use 1x4 material in truss construction.  The 1st, of course you can double it up and use it same as you would 2x4 material, and the 2nd is to use it for reinforcing members that nail onto the outside of the 2x4 material.  Because a picture is worth a thousand words, please view the diagram below:

Click Truss Image to Enlarge
The ziz-zag shaped pieces are 1x4 material nailed onto the larger triangular truss halves which are made of 2x4 material.  The left half of the diagram above is exactly how I would build a truss to span 18 feet.   If the height in the middle of the truss is 3 foot, then each wing can be 9 feet and that will give a standard 4/12 pitch roof.  A 4/12 roof is comfortable to walk on even for metal roofing.   Of course you should select a steeper roof pitch if there is any chance of significant snow accumulations.

The right half of the diagram represents a more general design for wider spans.  To increase strength, nail 1x4 material to both the front and back of the truss.

It is also handy to use material of all the same thickness and then sandwich the joints with pads of scrap plywood:

Of course you could use 1x4 material in this way by doubling it up to match thickness with the 2x4 material.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Howdy SawMillCreek Folks!

LOL! I see you all talking about me. It's cool. I tried to join your message board, but it keeps saying that "username is already in use" so it won't let me register no matter what variations I try.

Well, for those who watched the old table saw video, I have a sad update for you.  I was moving the table saw from one house to another, and I was in a hurry so I just shoved it in the back of my truck with no tie downs.  I thought I could go really slow around the turns but one road had a really bad bank and the saw rolled right out of my truck into the middle of the road.  The cast iron motor mount pieces shattered.   I was sad, but I've decided to quit while I'm ahead and let that saw go on to the scrap yard.

My dad had a saying about flying: " start out with a barrel of luck, and every time you go up, you reach a little further into that barrel..."   That could probably be applied to taking any sort of chances.

Anyways, with the price of scrap iron these days, I'm liable to get back as much money for it as scrap as my dad paid when he bought it way back when ... well, certainly with all my other scrap included.

Y'all have a good one, and be safe!   Haha, do as I say ... not as I do.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Step 1 - Learn and develop construction skills

Decide how much of the actual construction you wish to do yourself.

Issues to consider include:

   - Assessment and development of your skills.  You should have already built some items before you set out to build a house that you are going to live in.  Save money and develop your skill by renovating an old house while you live in it.  Build a garage or storage shed to gain a feel for your ability and insight into the construction process.

   - Local regulatory and code requirements.  If building in a municipality, there may be very little work that you can perform without the appropriate certifications.  Certain other trades like plumbing and electrical are heavily protected in most areas.  The most important step is to know the rules before you start ( or buy land ).

   - Cost of raw materials vs. installation costs.  Contractors can install some items for less than you can buy the materials for.  You can start pricing construction materials and shopping for contractors years ahead of the time you are ready to start construction.   That's the best way to know what a good deal is as well as have realistic expectations for cost.

   - Time.  Decide how much time you can invest ... and how much you can get from friends and family.

Here's my personal experience:

   My grandpa built the house that my dad grew up in, and my dad built the house that I grew up in, and that's why I wanted to keep the family trend going.  My dad was a great resource to tell me all the things I did wrong when I built an 8X12 pump shed in the backyard.   Later, he taught me how to pour a slab when we built a 14X22 garage together.   I also did work on whatever house I was living in then, anything from patching the roof to patching holes in drywall.  Finally, I have a degree in Aerospace Engineering and several of my classes focused on structural analysis.  So, I always felt comfortable designing a solid structure.  I'd say you either have a knack for it or you should hire an architect.

   I was lucky to have some land given that was suitable for construction by an owner-builder.  The land was out in a rural county in Texas that did not require building permits or have code enforcement.  The only permits I had to get were for the septic wastewater.  I was free to do as much of the other construction as I wanted.
   When I started pricing materials and getting quotes from contractors, I was surprised that it was cheaper to pay a contractor to come in and do a trade than it was for me to buy the materials at retail and do it myself.  Specifically, I would never consider doing insulation, masonry, or drywall myself.  To save money, I did always keep an eye out for cheap used lumber, re-bar, pipe, or anything else that I could acquire and store for years before my construction start date.   Be careful, you can't use "used" materials in an area that must pass code inspections, and obviously you only want stuff in sound condition.

   As you will see in the videos, I did a lot of work in the evenings and weekends while I was also working full time at a desk job.  I did everything I could ahead of time until I got laid off one day.  That's when I started actual construction.  It took about 18 months of full time work to build an 1800 sq ft house, but it would have taken much longer if I hadn't hired contractors for several of the trades.   In retrospect, the process would have gone much faster if I weren't so slow, or if I had hired an assistant, especially for framing.  If you do hire someone, be sure you have appropriate insurance.

As you can see from the video, there's not much to work with out there:

Step 2 - Get your game plan

   It gets rough when you have to make a huge investment in "housing" that you can't live in yet.  On top of that, loans can be tricky to come by, as well as insurance.   It is wise to develop a plan far ahead of time, and keep it as flexible as possible until the last moment.

Here's a list of items that you need to have figured out.

1.  Where are you going to build?
     - be careful to buy land that you can legally build on
     - be careful to buy land that is above any 1000 year flood plain ... drive out after a flood before you buy
     - check deed restrictions and know how far from boundaries that you can put up a structure
     - check county records to be aware of any easements, pipelines, power lines, etc. running through
     - before you buy, make sure you can get water service to the property or dig a well and know the cost
     - before you buy, make sure you can get electric service and know the cost
     - evaluate the cost of building a road to your construction site
     - evaluate the soil, grade/slope, and brush cover for impact to construction costs ... rocky terrain will add cost for septic installation if blasting is required; clay soil may add foundation and septic system costs.    
     - talk to neighbors to find out about site specific costs they ran into
     - consider property tax issues and whether or not you can have any exemptions, homestead or agriculture
     - evaluate site security and decide what is needed to prevent theft of building materials
     - evaluate any other risk factors like wild fire or tornado probability and plan to build accordingly
     - evaluate the location and travel time into town ... sometimes, 'further from town yet just off a major highway' can be better than 'close to town but down twisted and/or busy side streets'.
     - evaluate the view and imagine the orientation of your house on the lot ... can you have most of your windows face south and can you place the garage to block the north winter winds.

2.  Where are you going to live while you build?
     - you need a place that's close to the construction site
     - renting is a good option so that you don't have an outstanding loan for your current residence
     - moving a trailer onto the property might be possible in some areas, but watch the cash burn on that
     - building a pole barn / garage apartment first is a way to gain practice and have a place to live during construction of your main house.

3.  Where are you going to get the money?
     - start saving money today (you're 10 and have about $50K in lemonade stand profits to open your first savings account with ... right?)
     - always strive for a perfect credit history
     - find out who you can get personal loans from
     - decide if you need to break the project up into phases
     - you could pour the slab and then let things sit for a year or two
     - or 'dry the house in' and let it sit while you save again
     - don't frame it half way and try to let that sit for 2 years
     - make sure you have the money in hand to get to the next stopping point before you start another phase
     - be realistic about how much you can save and borrow.  Plan for everything to cost more than you expect.  It's much easier to find ways to make things nicer and spend more money later than it is to figure out how to cut corners and reduce spending.  Think simple, think small, think efficient.

4.  What are you going to do if disaster strikes?
     - make sure you can get an insurance policy for the site in case someone gets hurt and sues you
     - make sure you have adequate health and life insurance in case you kill or injure yourself
     - make sure you can get a construction insurance policy, but don't initiate it until you start framing.

Here's how I worked out the game plan:

   The land was already there, provided by my father-in-law.  We had to do some surveying and splitting and working with the county Health Department.  In Texas, you must have 10 acres with at least 50' of frontage to a public road to divide out a property to build on.   Luckily, my father-in-law already had a water meter out on the property to get water to his cattle.   Also, luckily, he kept the agricultural property tax exemption current.  We picked the site to minimize the distance that a road and utilities would have to be run, and made every decision possible to delay or reduce the amount of 'up-front' cash we had to spend.

   After considering the 'mobile home' option and the 'build a garage apartment' option, we bought a very affordable house close to the construction site.  It was "cozy".   I had pre-fabricated many components for the frame of a garage apartment, but then we changed our plans and decided to go ahead and build the main house.  I had to get creative to figure out how to use the parts I had already made.

   When I started construction, I had 50K saved up.  I was able to get the house "dried in" with that.   Then I had to borrow another 50K to finish it out.   This was for construction from 2002 to 2003, so be sure to account for inflation.  The biggest driver of cost is the amount of regulation you have to deal with though.   If at all possible, build in the country in a county that does not have building codes.  

   As for insurance, since we owned the other home close to the construction site, we were able to get a general liability policy to cover if anyone got hurt on the property.  Then, after I started framing, I got a 1 year construction policy.  That type of policy assumes that you will be 100% complete by the end of the term, but you can sometimes buy an extension.

Step 3 - It is Time to Design

   To me, the biggest perk to building your own house is that you have the freedom to design EXACTLY what you want.  Hopefully your tastes don't exceed your wallet, but at least you get to dream it all out in every detail.  You can and should customize your new home to fit perfectly into its space on the planet, and for you and your family to fit perfectly into your space in the new home.   It's time to bring together that list of all the things you just love about other people's homes, and put them to paper to form visual representations of the shapes that will form your space.

   Some ideas cost more than others to implement, but the best way to assimilate that list of must have features is to visit a lot of existing homes and take notes on how features that you like are put together.  You should always go to a party with a notepad and a tape measurer.   When you see a kitchen/dining/living space that just fits and makes you feel comfortable; don't just compliment the owner, hang back after the party and measure off the rooms, closets, bathrooms, ceiling heights, and note how they are laid out.  You can use these type of specific notes to help your architect understand what you want, or you can use those notes to help layout your own floor plan.

   Another great trick for putting together an awesome home design is to visit construction sites and start talking to the tradesmen onsite.  See first hand how they are doing their jobs.  If you catch a friendly one, ask lots of questions ... people usually like to be the expert and blab about their business.  Always take a note pad and a tape measurer because you do need specific data if you are going to design the house for yourself.   If you are inexperienced, be careful to get data from many projects and talk to many different people about the same questions.   You will have to combine all the different answers you get to what makes the most sense for your situation.   You need to review many houses so you can learn what items you can simply copy vs. when you must engineer a solution.   For example, every room has 2X4s to hold up the walls at 16" centers.   You can copy that and use that same pattern no matter how big the room is.   But, if you are building a floor that spans 12 feet between supports, you will need a much stronger board than if your floor only spans 8 feet.  You need to look at many structures to get a feel for when you can copy and when you must do some thinking and/or research.

   I built my whole house from a sketch of the floor plan on 3 sheets of 8 1/2" X 11" engineering paper.   Since I erected the foundation forms, laid the re-bar, plumbing, and framed the house, I didn't need much detail at all.  Most of the design was in my head, and I had the freedom to make many decisions on the fly.  However, most details should be decided ahead of time, and so here is a list:

1.  Dimensions and locations of all rooms, garages, closets, hallways, stairs, and the boundaries of the house.  Remember to account for thickness of walls in the floor-plan.  For any type of masonry exterior, the foundation should extend 5.5" beyond the outside face of the walls.  The walls will be about 4.5" thick if you are using 2x4 studs for your walls.

2.  Height of all rooms.   Allow for at least 12" boundary space between floors.  If some areas have short spans and you have only 10" floor joists, decide how you are going to match that up with areas that might require 12" joists.  You can just add that couple of inches to the ceiling height of the room under the 10" joists.

3.  Size and pitch of the roof.  The roof should extend 18-24" beyond the walls of the house.  Also, whether a hip roof or how the ridges will run.  I'm partial to a simple single ridge, non-hip roof.  It is easy to build and it is very efficient if you do a metal roof.

4.  The location and size of all doors and windows.  Be very careful with closets and bathrooms to make sure you have room to actually open the doors and pass through.  Take specific measurements from an existing house to see how much space is needed for the toilet or bathtub you plan to install.

5.  Location and shape of driveways, porches, and decks. Be sure to use 2x10s to create a lowered ledge in the foundation for the bottom of the garage doors to fit into. Normally you will use 2x6 lumber to form a 'brick ledge' around the rest of the house.

6.  Where all the load bearing walls will be.   These should rest on top of beams in your foundation or floors.

7.  For a concrete foundation, location of supporting beams.  The beams should be re-bar reinforce concrete that are 30-36" in depth.  They should approximate a 12' x 12' grid across the foundation, but you may shift them around to match up with your load bearing walls.  If building in really terrible soil, you may consider digging pier holes as well.  ( Talk to neighbors and see how their foundations are doing ).

8.  Location and size of any spanning beams for upper floors or across a basement.   These must be strong enough to hang the floor joists off of and support the weight of your mother-in-law's pet elephant.

9.  Location, size, ventilation, and entrances for any crawl spaces, basements, or storm cellars.

10.  Plumbing locations.  Starting with the water service inlet, and ending with the main septic line out, decide where all the lines will go and what size they should be. Check out the section on plumbing for more details.  If you have any custom bath tub units that you are planning to install, get the specs ahead of time so you know exactly where the drain and pressure lines go.  Also, remember to account for lines for any ice-maker, external faucets, or other appliances you might want ... and fire sprinklers too.   Finally, remember to plan spaces in walls for vent pipes to be run off the drain lines up through the roof.  You may have to build some 2x6 walls behind bathrooms, for example, to hide vent pipes.

11.  HVAC.  Make sure you have places to run ducts and air returns.  Make sure you have a location in the attic to accommodate the unit and that it is near a suitable location for the condenser outside.  Consider how the noise from the unit might affect the occupants and plan to locate away from bedrooms if possible.

12.  Electrical.  At least decide where the main breaker box is to be located.  I like to have mine in the garage with the main power coming from underground.  So, that means I had to run conduit from the service pole underground and then up through the edge of the foundation of the garage.

13.  Appliances: plan for venting the cook-stove, clothes dryer, wood stove, or fireplace.

14.  Location of water heater, emergency pressure relief line, and French drain in case it ever leaks.

15.  Orientation and location of the house on the property, location of utilities and access to the property.

Here's the story on how I designed my first house:

   I started by designing a tiny little garage apartment with 3 tiny bedrooms, 1 bath, a kitchenette, and a living space downstairs behind the garage.   I began construction out of my garage in Houston some 200 miles away from where I ended up building the new house.  I just started building door and window bucks.  I ended up needing more as the design "grew", but it was a way for me to get started since I had a dry place to store them:

These are easily used later in any house design, as long as you don't change your mind on the size of the windows you want.

By getting this early start with the hammer and nail, I did lock in the width of my house when I started building roof trusses and floor joists.

These set my width at 24', but I was able to add more space to the house by building more of these than I had originally designed for. Still, I didn't want my house to look like a long barn, so I made the house 'L' shaped. The trick was to run rafters from one edge of the trusses out over a wider, but "single-story" part of the house. This gave me all the room I needed to fit a nice kitchen, dining, living, laundry, pantry, half-bath and closets downstairs. It also was perfect for having a space to put the HVAC equipment and a walk-in attic space that is accessed from the master bedroom without having to climb up a rickety ladder.

I did have to use some old high school geometry to figure out how high to make that main truss and how high to make the walls over the single story section of the house. The angle of the roof line needed to be constant as it descends over the section of the house seen to the left.

Step 4 - Site Prep

   Site prep is the first step in the actual construction process.  I lumped some things in this phase that one might not normally do here, but it worked for me.

Once you are sure that you can legally build on your lot and have any permits to even get started, here's a checklist for what you need to do early in the process.  These items will also add value to your lot even if you can't go ahead with construction yourself.

1.  Water service.  No matter if you plan to connect to city, co-op, or drill a well, you need to get water onsite.  The price of water is rising and availability is falling, at least around central Texas.  Getting water can be very expensive, but these days, it is best to get it sooner than later.  Perhaps if you are planning a rooftop collection system, then you can save this step for later.

2.  Electric service.   Most country hardware stores can put a meter loop together for you.  Call the electric service provider for your area to get the specs for a new meter loop, and make sure the one you buy meets their requirements.   Usually if you purchase a meter loop from the same county where you build, the hardware store will already have one that meets the specs.   Have them add a 200 amp master shutoff with 4 breakers below it to come off of for your construction power needs.  Make sure the master shutoff box has pass through connectors so you can later run underground conduit to tie into the same box to feed power to a master panel inside the house.  Those outside breakers come in handy for any outdoor power needs after construction is finished as well, i.e. for the septic pump.   Plan ahead and you'll save some money by placing a connection for construction that is suitable for the finished house.  Also, have the meter loop pole onsite when the power company sets their poles so they can set your meter loop pole on the same trip.

3.  Access road.  You can save money upfront by waiting on the road, but then rain and mud sure can mess you up if you don't have good access to the site.  My favorite strategy for building a road is to start with scrap rock from a local quarry or scrap concrete from where ever you can get it.  Big chunks make the best first layer for a new road, and sometimes you can pull out nice pieces to use later for retaining walls.  Of course you'll need crushed base to cover the big stuff and fill in little gaps.  Once you have all material onsite, don't hesitate to rent a Bobcat / skid-steer loader with "teeth" on the loader bucket.   Sometimes if you rent one on Friday night or Saturday morning, you can use it all weekend for one day's rental if you don't put more than 8 hours on it.  Skid steers / Bobcats are actually very easy to operate and building a road is a great way to get the hang of it.  Please though, don't let anybody around the site while you are working ... ESPECIALLY NO CHILDREN!!!

4.  Fences or other security measures.  Of course this depends on your specific situation, but now is the time to fence off the construction area.  When you start construction, rent a lockable storage container if needed.

5.  Tree clearing or tree planting.   This is one of those things I just lumped in.  Since there were no trees near my house, I wanted to get one started ASAP.   Just don't plant anything too close to the construction site.

Ok, so now you have some tedious pre-construction work done.  You should be able to quit now and sell your lot for more than you paid for it.   Nothing should be totally set in stone yet.  Even the road could be moved or extended.  However, now is the time to totally finalize what you are going to build and where it is going to sit on the lot.  Steps from here on out may also be time sensitive, so gear yourself up to keep the ball rolling now.   There are just three steps left for site prep though:

1.  In Texas, you will need to get a permit for an on-site wastewater system.  This has an expiration on it, so wait until you are actually ready to begin construction before you go to the county health department to get it. I do recommend getting it before you break ground.  If there's going to be a snag in the process, it will be while dealing with the government.  Mother Nature is more predictable.

2.  Layout the approximate footprint of you house, driveway, and porches.  One trick for getting the layout square and even is to measure diagonally from corner to corner.  Those diagonal measures must match unless you want your house shaped like a rhombus or trapezoid.

3.  Rent that skid steer ( with teeth on the loader ) again and remove any signs of life and at least 6" of the topsoil from the area inside your layout and up to a foot around your layout (in case you were off a little somewhere).  Insist on a skid steer with teeth because you will have a hard time cutting through the turf without them.   Also, it certainly doesn't hurt to wet the soil ahead of time or plan to do this within a week of a good rain.   Remember, no kids around while that machine is running.

Site Prep = DONE