I know only a little.
The Elements of Construction for the Novice who wants to Build a Home
Here’s a VERY general roadmap for building a single family residence. I know ONLY what I learned building a single house without a general contractor and I knew virtually nothing prior to this experience. I did read a few books on building which were delightful but did not help much. My recommendations are based directly on what I experienced in building our home. In other words, I know only a little (which is dangerous) however, it did produce a warm, energy efficient home, with surprisingly few design stupidities. I suspect a lot of luck was involved. But do not assume I know what I am talking about. Just take this list of items as a starting point.
Even if you hire an architect (and I recommend you do so if you can afford it) this will still give an idea of where to start. We did not hire an architect, but it was strictly a budgetary issue. There is a little bit of design-insanity in our house that would have been corrected if we had. Should you hire a general contractor? If you can afford it, yes. I’ll discuss this later.
SITE SELECTION AND FOUNDATION
1. Orient your house toward the sun.
In other words, the side of your house with the MOST windows – the long side of your house (assuming it is roughly rectangular) – should face south (assuming you are my hemisphere). The sun travels a path that is more-or-less overhead in the summer, but in the winter, when you really need it, the sun follows a path that is closer to the horizon and therefore, it will shine directly into your house (unless you fail to orient your house toward the sun). [Please go to #26 to see what comes BEFORE selecting a site and should be considered BEFORE YOU BUY A PIECE OF LAND.]
2. Choose a site that is slightly elevated if possible (or make the site slightly elevated). But only SLIGHTLY.
I don’t know if any one else recommends this, but my opinion is that it will help you keep moisture away from your foundation – water is your enemy – and give you a slight vantage point on your property. You don’t want to be on the top of a dramatic elevation as this will be very inconvenient, especially in winter, and — in my opinion — affects the energy of your place in a negative way.
3. Choose a spot that has, if possible, some natural protection from prevailing winds.
Find out what direction the harshest winds come from (believe it or not, wind and rain does tend to come from the same direction and as far as I know, it’s generally from the West if you’re in the continental U.S.) and think about finding a spot with a barrier of trees or hedges on that side. If not, you can also just plant them of course. In some climates, this may not matter as much, but in harsh temperatures, it does.
4. Don’t build a basement!!!
This I know to be true: a basement is a hole in the ground that will always, no matter what, try to fill with water. You might hire a group of craftspeople and designers so skilled that you have a dry basement for years to come, but the water will always be there. Waiting. Trying to creep in. Trying to turn your nasty, windowless basement into a wet, nasty, windowless basement. Why fight gravity?
The claim is that basements give you lots of extra square footage. False. In the real world, most people who have basements avoid them for reasons they can’t really put their finger on. Even when they’ve renovated them. Psychologically, people do not like to be underground. (Any guess why?) Don’t torture yourself. And don’t force other people – family members, friends, renters – to live underground. They will grow pale and depressed.
If you live in an area with a very high water table, then building a basement is really not an option – it would be complete madness.
It is true that they can be convenient for storage, but the risk of water or moisture damage to your stuff is significant. Better to build a small storage shed at the same time you build your house.
5. Build a slab instead.
A slab is what it sounds like. It is also called a floating slab. It does not go much below the ground you walk on. It’s just a shallow blanket of concrete on the ground (with “feet” on the outer edges, that descend deeper into the earth), but if done properly, works beautifully. But there is a serious consideration: the stability of the ground beneath the slab. In an ideal situation, you will find a spot with exposed bedrock (some call it “rock ledge”) and build it there. You can’t ask for much more stability than that. (This, due mostly to serendipity, is what we built our house on.) The second best scenario is one in which there is bedrock fairly close to the surface. The topsoil will be scraped away before a proper site is built. If bedrock is nowhere near the surface, then you must have stable soil to build a slab. Unstable soil is a problem for any kind of foundation, even a basement, but more so for a slab. You will have to get an expert to help you determine the soil stability, but some of the qualities you are looking for are: A) cohesiveness – does the soil stick together a little, a lot, not at all? Sand, for example, does not cohere. B) swelling – does the soil swell greatly when wet or not? Clay, for example, swells a great deal. C) drainage – does the water naturally drain away from your chosen house site and if not, can you easily amend it so that it does? NOTE: I said EASILY amend it. You want to avoid trying to fight nature, because you might win in the short term, but you will eventually lose and spend a lot of money on the way to your defeat.
There are cases in which the soil is too unstable for a slab but this is uncommon.
Some will tell you that slabs are not a good idea for cold areas like the northeast. Nonsense. AS LONG AS you use radiant heat – which consists of a web of tubes embedded right in the concrete floor. Hot water flows through them. With radiant heat, slabs are ideal for cold areas and are increasingly popular. But without radiant heat, your floor will be like block of ice in the winter. Below, you’ll see the prep work for our slab. What you see here is an amazingly flat surface of sand covered by pink rigid insulation and then covered in Pex tubing (this is the radiant heat — hot water will flow through these tubes). You also see plastic under the layer of sand and finally the wooden forms that have been placed there to create a kind of mold for the pouring of the concrete. The space between the pink rigid insulation mass and the wooden form is where the “feet” of the slab will be. Concrete will cover the tubes completely:
Here’s a wider angle view:
And this is PRIOR to laying the tubes and setting up the forms, though you can see the the plumbing has already been placed:
Surprisingly, there is still a good deal of excavation work needed for a slab; it’s just not the same type of excavation performed for a basement. The excavator will scrape away, at a minimum, the very top layer of soil (sometimes more) and then build it back up with crushed rock and sand, making a perfectly flat surface on which to pour the concrete.The sand and crushed rock create ideal conditions for good drainage.
A huge percentage of your efforts in building will revolve around making sure water & moisture leaves your house alone.
Another reason to use a concrete slab is that it’s MUCH less expensive than a basement. Not a little. A lot. This is because it uses far less concrete.
The drawback with a slab is that the plumbing and electric are buried in the concrete itself. If something goes wrong with either of these, what do you do???????? I guess we’ll find out at some point, but as of now (we are currently at the 8 year mark and no problems so far), I really don’t know. Also, future renovations on the first floor are impossible IF they require new plumbing (on the first floor — other floors, it doesn’t matter). Your drains are embedded in the concrete itself. There is no way (as far as I am aware) of adding a new drainage system to an existing concrete slab. If you want to add a bathroom to the first floor, for example, you must enlarge the footprint of the house.
Make sure your slab is surrounded by insulation (rigid insulation that is made to be in contact with the ground). And you want as high an R-value to your insulation as possible. R-value measures the ability of your insulation (and windows, exterior doors, etc.) to resist heat flow and the higher the number the better (if you live in a cold climate).
And DO NOT allow anyone to shoot nails or bolts into your slab after it is finished. If they hit a radiant heating tube, you are in big trouble! The only bolts that should be in your slab – the bolts that anchor the framing of the house to your slab – should be placed in the wet concrete BEFORE it dries.
There are other decent options besides slabs, particularly for warm climates.
If I had to do it over again, I would still build a slab (ours has worked out great) but I would also add….
6. A Raised Floor System
It’s what it sounds like. It elevates the first floor two or three feet above the slab. Essentially we’re talking about a crawl space, but it’s an ABOVE GROUND crawl space, which makes it acceptable in my book. (Below ground crawl spaces should be avoided.) In a house with a raised floor system, the mechanical systems are accessible (though not all that fun to access).
Perhaps it’s overkill to install a slab PLUS raised floor system, instead of a simple perimeter wall and piers, but in a cold climate, I think a slab might make sense (as long as you embed the radiant heat in the slab). I also just like slabs a lot.
7. Use radiant heat
It’s incredibly efficient – you won’t believe how low your heating bills are – and is not dry heat like forced hot air systems. Radiant heat is a system of tubes embedded right in the concrete. Hot water runs through those tubes and heats up the concrete floor. It’s wonderful heat. The only minor drawback is that it takes some time to really change the temperature of the house. If you’re at 70 degrees and want to go down to 60, it will take an hour and vice versa. But for those in the northeast who want to warm up fast, I recommend adding a cast iron stove as supplemental heating. This will allow you to warm up quickly when you need it (and it’s more fun to gather round than TV).
Radiant systems can be attached to oil, gas or solar energy.
Have you read #26 yet? Go there now!
FRAMING & INSULATING
8. The skeleton of your house is called the “framing” and “stick framing” is most common and perfectly adequate. If you’re interested in something more substantial and beautiful, there are number of options.
Stick framing is what you see everywhere and has been in vogue for about 80 years. The builder assembles hundreds of wood 2 x 4s to create the outline for your walls, floors, roofs. (In colder areas, they should be 2 x 6s so the extra space can be filled in with extra insulation.) Stick framing, when done properly, is stable and efficient. It also uses less materials and energy than most other forms of framing. It has become the conventional way to build a house, but if you’ve ever seen a post and beam framed house, it’s hard not to fall in love with that kind of framing. It’s very beautiful, though considerably more expensive. The benefit is that these houses tend to be as solid as a mountain. They take expertise to build – it’s more difficult to find people who know how to build this way – but they are so lovely many people leave some of it exposed on the interior of the house.
You could frame your house in other materials, such as steel 2 x 4s, but these alternatives are generally for special considerations. Steel 2 x 4s may be used for earthquake prone areas for example or termite infested areas. Insulated concrete forms might best be used to frame houses in hurricane prone areas. Though we did not use ICF (insulate concrete forms) I am partial to them. Check out Hebel block construction. It seems to be awesome. It’s as sturdy as concrete but less than half the weight because it’s aerated (mixed with air) and highly insulating. As of my writing this, it is also extremely difficult to find people who know how to build using Hebel blocks; this lack of builders knowledgeable in this type of construction is a major obstacle.
Another option worth mentioning here, are Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs). They can be used instead of stick framing. An SIP is like a sandwich — plywood is one piece of bread, drywall is the other piece and rigid insulation in the middle is the melted gruyere with basil. They are also VERY energy efficient and allow no drafts. They also make for strong walls, roofing (and floors if you are not using a concrete slab). You order exactly the measurements you require — including the measurements for the window and door openings, and the SIP company sends you precise pieces that pop up into place easily and quickly as if they were legos. There are drawbacks to SIPs however and one is that they can be so air tight that moisture is trapped in the house. This can generally be corrected with ventilation systems.
A note about wood that comes into contact with the ground or the foundation: it must be treated wood. Pressure treated wood is most common — it has an ugly greenish cast. But there are other options evolving as I write. Pressure treated wood is not nearly as toxic as it was until just a few years ago (when it still was treated with arsenic!) but it is still unappealing in both appearance or healthfulness. There are naturally rot-resistant woods like cedar and cypress, but it can get very pricey very quickly if you take this route.
Here’s our house with a finished slab (but littered with rain and leaves) and the stick framing with some of the sheathing up (the plywood on the exterior of the 2 x 6s) and the roof trusses in place:
Trusses are generally ordered almost fully assembled and then builder uses a crane to put them in place. Which means you have to rent a crane for a day or two. These are called scissor trusses. There are many different kinds (see more about this later).
Think of your walls a sandwich. Going from inside to outside, the sandwich consists of: paint, drywall, 2x4s or 2x6s (this is your framing) filled with insulation, then plywood (or alternative sheathing), then vapor barrier (if necessary), then siding.
9. The 2 x 4s (or 2 x 6s) will be filled in with insulation. Use the best (and least toxic) insulation you can find. It makes ALL the difference in your comfort and your heating bills. IF YOU SCRIMP ON EVERYTHING ELSE, DO NOT SCRIMP ON INSULATION.
Don’t use that soft, pink stuff – fiberglass insulation. It’s ineffective and toxic (it contains formaldehyde in the adhesive). Plus it eventually molds. There are many other options. We used a spray foam insulation called Icynene. Yes, it’s expensive, but it seals your house completely. No drafts. It will reduce your heating costs by half. It also has excellent sound deadening properties. Icynene also allows water vapor to escape, preventing the formation of damp areas within the insulation (fiberglass, for example, gets wet and moldy and crumbly). Icynene is also inert, giving off no noxious gasses.
One possible drawback: A house wrapped in Icynene is almost airtight which can trap too much moisture inside. In the coldest weather, when all the windows are closed, the building might require artificial ventilation. In order not to lose the heat-saving advantages of a tight building, the ventilation system may have to include air exchangers to warm the incoming air. Most do not see this as a drawback however as long as there is proper ventilation [ please see the section on ventilation ]. We have actually never had any moisture or condensation problems (presumably because of Icynene’s breathability), and this might be due also to 1. our wood stove running quite a bit — and this heat is very drying and/or 2. we have a lot of “natural” ventilation from the extremely drafty antique doors we have. Might just be luck. Here is a pic of our insulation PRIOR to the ceiling being installed over it:
Insulation options are quickly evolving but as of my writing this, there is also wool batting (from sheep’s wool) which is pretty expensive and cotton (from recycled jeans) which is less expensive – both are effective and non toxic, but because they are not sprayed-in, they can never seal as tightly as spray-foam insulation (like icynene). If you’re wondering about pests getting into wool or cotton, both options contain borax to prevent pests (borax is fairly non-toxic).
In very dry areas, I recommend considering straw bale walls. They’re beautiful, efficient and cheap. They give you really dense, deep walls. This is the dream option, in my opinion. And you can use them with timber framing as well. But in normal rainfall areas, I personally would hesitate. Straw bale advocates will tell you that it can be done in wet areas, but I dunno. I imagine that five years out you will have little mold forests growing in your walls.
The next layer (going toward the interior of the house) after insulation is drywall. Paper faced drywall (which is the typical drywall still used today) is not a great option but is acceptable in rooms of your house that are going to be absolutely dry at all times, but in any area that gets even a little moisture I strongly suggest you look for something else. There’s a new paperless drywall coming out right now which I would have liked to try, but since it did not exist when we built our house we went with fiberglass drywall. It’s much heavier than paper drywall (and therefore hard to work with) but it’s recommended for prevention of mold. The jury is still out on this drywall. We’ll see how it performs over time. It’s also important that your drywall installer leaves a gap between the floor and the beginning of the drywall (to be covered later by baseboards). This prevents water from being soaked up from the floor into the drywall.
There are other options besides drywall. Plaster (or clay) for example or clay are two of many. Plaster and clay are gorgeous alternatives but, of course, more expensive. And it’s a bit harder to find people who have those skills. If you build with straw bales for walls, I highly recommend you use clay, because it will allow your hay bales to “breathe”— that is, release any moisture they may contain. Check out American Clay (that’s the brand).
11. Use low or zero VOC paint.
The final layer (moving inward) is paint. VOCs are Volitale Organic Compounds like formaldehyde. They’re not good for you and since your house is going to be close to air-tight, they will affect you more than in an older, drafty house.
12. Moving outward from the framing, the next layer is plywood, also called the house’s “sheathing.”
The most common options are OSB (oriented strand board), exterior-grade plywood and Advantech. Advantech (a newer option) seems to be an interesting option as it has excellent moisture resisting capability and only costs a tiny bit more than the others. You can use it for wall sheathing AND roof sheathing. I didn’t know about Avantech until after our house was built.
If you build with straw bales, and plan to use clay/plaster, you don’t need sheathing.
13. Continuing to move toward the exterior, you will then apply a Vapor Barrier, UNLESS you used Icynene or natural materials (like straw and plaster).
The vapor barrier most commonly used today is called Tyvek housewrap and is the same stuff the soft Fedex envelopes are made of. This stuff is supposed to help prevent water vapor from causing damage within the walls. I don’t really understand how it works to tell you the truth. Because it seems like it would actually trap moisture. Don’t ask me. The point is, raise the issue with your builder/contractor. If you’re using natural materials like plaster, you may not need it. If you used Icynene, you do not need a moisture barrier (according to me, anyway…. you’ll want to get a second opinion).
14. Finally, siding.
You’re on your own here. Choose whatever looks good to you – be sure to consider how much maintenance it will need. We chose metal siding, which is typically used for industrial buildings, but we liked the industrial look and, even more delightful, there’s zero maintenance. ZERO!!!! If you are lucky enough to have straw bale walls, I recommend you consider hydraulic lime plaster for siding because, again, it will allow the straw bales to release moisture — and it also looks gorgeous.
15. A note about nails
Nails are holding your house together. DO NOT ALLOW ANYONE TO SCRIMP ON NAILS. All nails used on the framing (meaning anything that comes in contact with the outside at any point in the building process) should be galvanized. Otherwise they will rust and fall apart.
16. Standing seam metal roof.
We were advised to apply a “standing seam” roof and we were advised well. It will last and be leak free for many decades. Why not a corrugated metal roof, you ask, since it is cheaper? Standing seam is actually a process whereby the roofing team bends the edge of each panel over the edge of the next panel making it water-proof. The material is similar to corrugated, but the process is what makes it a much better option.
We also used trusses for the framing of the roof. This is a common choice but not the only one. We have scissor trusses but have a look at the variety of configurations for trusses (and this is not all of them):
17. Exposed concrete in cold climates, covered concrete in warm climates
To keep costs down, I recommend just sealing your concrete floor and leaving it at that (unless you live in a hot climate – see below). You can, of course, put anything you like over the concrete floor: wood flooring, carpet, tiles, linoleum, etc. If you choose to leave the concrete exposed and want to give it a warmer look (grey can be a little morbid) you can either have the floor stained after it is finished, OR – and this is my recommendation – have the color added to the concrete before it is ever poured. The concrete company should offer you an array of color choices. Keep in mind that it will not be a consistent color when it is finished, but swirled and mottled, but that is the charm. We chose brown to warm it up and it looks very nice, but we’ve seen red, green, blue and they all looked good. WAIT AT LEAST 8 MONTHS, before you seal your floors because the concrete will be releasing a lot of moisture during that time. Then wash the floor and spread Safecoat Mexeseal (a nontoxic sealer) all over it (it’s pretty easy). It will greatly reduce the concrete dust, deepen the color and give it a very low sheen (like eggshell). Here are two closeup pics of the slab with a sealant on the left and unsealed on the right:
AND MAKE SURE THAT YOUR TOTAL-LOSER-INSULATION-CONTRACTOR COVERS THE FLOOR WITH A DROPCLOTH BEFORE HE APPLIES THE ICYNENE OR HE WILL ESSENTIALLY RUIN THE FLOOR — AND IT WILL STILL BE COVERED IN BIG BLOTCHES OF SNOT-COLORED ICYNENE TO THIS VERY DAY
If you live in the deep South, or anywhere it gets blazing hot, I recommend that you do cover the concrete with a wood floor or carpet or some other flooring because concrete is a great retainer of solar heat. The sun will pound through your window and warm up your floor and make the interior of your house uncomfortably hot. In the North, however, this effect is great. It goes toward reducing your heat bill.
Do yourself a favor. Build a compartment for a very large garbage can – not one of those joke-sized kitchen garbage cans. And if you have dogs who like to go garbage diving, make the compartment sealed off, with a door for your own access, and then add a hole in the countertop above the garbage. Voila.
Natural stones are very nice. Granite is all the rage right now and it does look great. We have slate and it is lovely ( if you like natural stone ). You can go cheaper and do slate tiles or more expensive and order a single slab of slate and they come in a variety of colors. Add a built-in butcher block — perhaps a whole section of your counter. Do whatever the hell you want!
There’s a useful concept known as the kitchen’s “work triangle.” Basically, the three most used spots in your kitchen — the refrigerator, the stove and the sink – should all be within easy reach of each other and laid out to form a triangular workflow area. Stand up and imagine you are cooking something and get a sense of how far you do NOT want to walk or reach for something. There are other useful kitchen-design concepts but this one is simple and easy and, I discovered, it works.
DOORS & WINDOWS
Front doors are really expensive. You will notice that many wooden entry doors are made of mahogany – this is because mahogany is one of the few woods that can stand up to the punishing conditions of direct sun and rain. But mahogany is hugely expensive. Be prepared for sticker shock. You can also find doors made of lesser woods but they MUST be painted EVERY YEAR and you must not let this go or your door will disintegrate quickly. You can also choose an insulated, foam core, metal or vinyl door which are much cheaper.
We don’t really have front doors. We have these very flimsy, 80-year-old, cracked INTERIOR doors that are pretending to be exterior doors. They don’t even have door knobs. We’ll correct that eventually.
If you want wooden doors — rather than fiberglass — interior doors are also a bit more expensive. Whether you go with wooden, fiberglass or vinyl interior doors, your builder will want you to order “pre-hung” doors (both interior and exterior) so that he can just pop it into place instead of building a frame for it. If you DO NOT buy your doors pre-hung, he will be unhappy and drag his feet with the doors. We discovered that builders hate dealing with frameless doors. I don’t know why. But builders hate doors. But if you’re willing to risk your builder’s unhappiness (which you should only risk once in a blue moon), here’s one suggestion: find old wooden doors from an antique shop or architectural salvage. They are VERY cheap and they will add a little character to a house that is otherwise reeking with extreme newness. If you do this, buy them WELL IN ADVANCE so your builder can frame the door holes to the proper size.
Doors have R-value, just like insulation, so you want it to be higher rather than lower. Even if you live in a warm/hot climate, you want to strive for high R-value in your exterior selections because it will prevent high heat from entering the house just as it prevents heat from leaving the house in winter.
They’re so expensive! It’s horrifying. Partly because of the modern innovation called “insulated, low-E, glass.” These are double pane windows with argon gas in between the panes and a super thin layer of metal on the glass itself (it’s invisible). There’s really no other option, especially if you live in a cold climate. There do exist triple pane windows but that might be taking it a bit far. If you live in a remarkably stable climate (between 50 and 80 year round), I suppose you could get away with single pane windows (I’d still recommend low-e panes at the minimum), but I don’t know that this is standard practice.
Try to make your windows large if you can afford it. You’ll appreciate the extra sunlight and ventilation.
If windows are lower than 18 inches from the floor, they must also be tempered glass (it’s building code). Tempering makes them more shatter resistant.
Ordering windows is a bit of a nightmare because there’s so little guidance offered by anyone whether they are with the window company or not. And if you’d like windows that are not the same ole windows you see on the average tract home let us know where you find them! We never figured it out. I suppose it’s a complex custom order process with some very specialized window-making outfit, but I didn’t feel I knew enough to brave the interaction with window makers asking me about extension jambs and glass types.
Window salesmen (Marvin, Anderson and Pella, basically) seem to offer you only two options in terms of how the window opens: double hung and casement. You can get “divided lights” if you want, but they’re fake divisions (unless you want to pay double) and I tried to avoid fake in all aspects of building.
You’ll also be asked what kind of material you want on the inside and on the outside of the windows. Aluminum? Vinyl? Wood? What kind of wood? What color vinyl?
We used Anderson and Marvin windows and they both suck. Marvins are overpriced and Anderson vinyl windows look tacky — and neither were really installed properly. Though they haven fallen out yet. So that’s something.
Try to read up on windows and when you find a friendly source of custom windows, let me know.
If you live in a cold climate, and are building 2 x 6 walls (instead of 2 x 4), order your windows with “extension jambs.” This will give you the 2 extra inches in depth you need to come into alignment with your 2 x 6 walls. The typical window jambs are 2 x 4. WISH THEY’D EXPLAINED THIS TO ME.
Again, go for higher R-value.
A properly ventilated house lets the house (especially the attic) breathe, preventing moisture build up. If you see moisture condensing on the inside of your windows, you have a ventilation problem and you really should address it immediately. Moisture will gobble up your house with rot and/or mold and it will dramatically reduce the effectiveness of your insulation (which is probably becoming soaked). Sometimes the only way to address the problem is to increase (or entirely replace) the insulation. AND YET, a home that is too air tight can also have problems with moisture as well as odor. It can also have a buildup of hazardous air contamination from carbon monoxide, VOCs, nitrogen oxide and radon. It’s very tricky.
Check your attic regularly (assuming it is not a heated attic). If the heat from below is bleeding through too powerfully, you know you’re going to have condensation in the winter.
Ventilation is a serious issue for all houses. You may not realize how much humidity is produced from: humans, pets, plants, cooking, and bathing. And most new furniture gives off toxic fumes for 2 or 3 years after they invade your home. There are many different mechanical ventilation options for different types of construction. Talk to your builder about which is best for your situation, but I can’t really tell you more than that.
We have no ventilation systems in our house and it seems to have worked out surprisingly well, but this is due to several things: 1. we don’t have an attic. Our insulation is sealed to the upmost rafters and there is zero space between the roof and the insulation. 2. we have lots of natural ventilation (doors with cracks in them and, during the summer, the house is wide open for months on end) 3. we have a wood stove that dries things out. 4. luck. 5. I really don’t know.
We have a Buderus. It is super quiet and efficient and we like it. That’s all I can tell you, because that’s all I know about furnaces.
25. Water heater
I recommend the Polaris water heater. Ours is hooked up to a propane system but you can also buy a Polaris that can be hooked up to a solar heating system (and these days, it’s very affordable to do solar hot water).
If you’re building in the country, you’re going to have to build a septic system and depending on your town’s regulations, it can get very expensive. YOUR LAND MUST BE “PERCED” BEFORE YOU BUY IT. This is RULE NUMBER ONE. IF YOU BUY A PIECE OF LAND AND THE “PERC TEST” FAILS AT ALL POINTS ON THE PIECE OF PROPERTY, YOU ARE MAJORLY SCREWED. IT MEANS YOU CANNOT BUILD ON THIS PIECE OF LAND. What is a “perc test”? It answers the question: “Does your land percolate properly for a septic system to operate?” If the soil is very wet and saturated and there is little to no sloping, then you may be in trouble (though not necessarily — perhaps it can be corrected). If your piece of land is going to be connected to city or town systems, then it doesn’t matter. NEVER BUY AN UNPERCED PIECE OF PROPERTY UNLESS IT IS GOING TO BE CONNECTED TO CITY SEWAGE SYSTEMS. DETERMINE THIS BEFORE YOU BUY.
Out in the country, you will have to have a well drilled. I recommend adding one or two spigots that are not near the house. For example, are you going to have a garden? Add a spigot nearby. Will you have any animals? Add a spigot for them. In town, you will just hook up to the town water system.
How can you determine how far down the water table is? There really is no reliable way to do this. The best method is just to ask neighbors if they are close by. If they are not helpful, your water driller may have to drill a number of holes before he finds a water table high enough. The equipment they use is so massive, intimidating and powerful that they drill the well in a flash. It takes about 15 minutes.
Consider trying to cluster your bathroom(s), utility room and kitchen so they are all adjacent. This will mean that your plumbing is concentrated in one area of the house and not snaking all over the whole structure (this means cheaper, quicker construction using less materials and less problems in the future). MAKE SURE that if you live in a cold climate that your pipes are NOT in exterior walls. Aside from the point of entry and exit from the house, all plumbing should be in the interior walls.
29. Ceiling Fans
If you want to try to live with very little AC, install ceiling fans everywhere. Combined with large windows, they are suprisingly effective. In large rooms, use oversized ceiling fans.
LIVABILITY & AESTHETIC CONSIDERATIONS
30. Cabin fever
We live in the far north, which means we get severe cabin fever in the middle of the winter. To help allay this, we made our central room fairly oversized with a high ceiling. We took a little square footage away from the bedrooms for this, but it helps greatly with the feeling of being imprisoned in one’s house when it is 3 degrees outside for 2 weeks straight.
If I lived in the South, I’d have a vast screened-in porch — even bigger than the living room — with ceiling fans. I would also have a dog-trot. (I love dog-trots and am very jealous of them.)
Try to keep everything proportional and balanced, no matter what size your house. Strange proportions are what make a house look amateurish.
32. Accessibility for elderly
Consider easy access for elderly relatives or for yourself if you plan to grow old there. Are the door openings and hallways wide enough? (I recommend you severely limit hallways in your design as it tends to be wasted space.) Are there stairs everywhere you turn? How about easy entry to the house? Our house is one story, but if yours is two story, do you have a bedroom and bathroom on the first floor? Is the shower or tub a deathtrap?
33. Funky details
If you want to build unusual details into the design of the house, please go for it, but try to keep it to one or two details if you anticipate that you may ever sell the house. You will be reducing the value of your house if you take it too far. We added garage doors to the main body of our house, for example. In the living room, we can lift up the door and it’s almost like being on a porch. Many buyers may hate this, but it’s just one detail and can be changed fairly easily.
34. Make your machine room easy to access and roomy.
If you place your furnace and water heater, etc. in a small dark closet, it will make the HVAC person miserable when he is working on it. (HVAC – an abbreviation you’ll see much of – is “Heating, Ventilating, Air Conditioning”)
35. Interior layout considerations with respect to the sun.
The north side of your house will be the darkest. So you want to place your machine room (utility room) there and the majority of your closets. You want your bedrooms and living room(s)/dining area to be receiving the majority of the light, therefore, they will best be situated on the south side of your house (if possible). It may also be fun to think about morning activities taking place in the east (rising from sleep in your bedroom, for example) and evening activities taking place in the west (hanging out in the living room).
36. Insulation in interior walls
What do you need insulation in interior walls for? Acoustic properties. Without it, you’ll have no real privacy in the enclosed rooms.
37. Build a carport rather than an enclosed garage.
It’s vastly more pleasant to have an open air car space and less likely to become a junkpile than enclosed garages. But BE SURE to place it on the side of the house that is not visible to the public (perhaps you could also add a hedge around it) because it will probably become a dogpile anyway.
But what do I do first???? Where do I start???
OK, here’s sequence you can use to get going (then it takes on it’s own life and you simply follow the dictates of the situation).
- You picked a piece of land that has good southern exposure, that is either flat or has a gentle slope, that is not in a low-lying area (you’re asking for water problems if it is), and you had it perced (or it’s already been perced). MAKE SURE the perc test is given to you and that your buyer’s contract is contingent on a good perc test.
- Buy your land.
- Decide whether you want to hire an architect or not. If not, decide whether you want to hire a general contractor or not. A general contractor is much like the conductor of the symphony of subcontractors. If you hire one, you will communicate exclusively with him and he will take care of many of the details you have not yet even considered. All other specialists who work on your house are referred to as “subcontractors.” If you hire a general contractor, he will take you through all the steps that follow (hopefully!) and you can stop reading here. If you do not hire an architect or general contractor, then keep reading.
- Hire a septic designer to design a septic system for you. In a few weeks he will give you septic plans.
- While septic-guy is working on the septic plans, get some basic plans drawn up for your house. How? Well you can either sketch them out by hand giving dimensions of everything (yes, believe it or not, a good general contractor or builder will be able to interpret your gibberish and, by asking you many questions, make it real) or you can find a draftsman to make it more precise. A draftsman is not an architect but they often work for architects. They do the technical drawing and that’s it. You describe what you want, they ask many questions about sizes and dimensions, they give you a set of drawings a few weeks later and that’s the last you hear of them. If you hire a general contractor, he very likely will be able to do these drawings for you.
- Go to your town clerk’s office and get the permit paperwork. It will take you a few weeks to fill it out with the proper details and there is a fee associated. DO NOT begin construction until you submit your paperwork and then get an official OK from the town when they mail you an approval. This can take some time to process so get it going quickly.
- Knowing what kind of foundation you’re going to have (presumably concrete will be central, no matter which form you choose), hire a foundation contractor and ask them to draw up and give you a set of foundation plans. A foundation contractor is generally one and the same with the company who mixes and pours and concrete. So call up the closest concrete company and ask them if they can both draw up the design and pour the foundation. Ours was just a plain ole rectangle, so that was pretty easy.
- Hire an excavator and give him the foundation plans.
- The building permit arrives.
- Rent a port-o-potty for you site.
- Your excavator gets going NOW.
- Hire a builder (if you have not already) and give him the drawings of the house (not your foundation drawings however as the builder will not be involved in that part of it).
- Hire a plumber and an electrician while the excavator is working and BEFORE the concrete foundation is poured. They will be laying pipe and wire prior to the big pour. Your electrician will also need to install the electric systems BEFORE your insulation man sprays in your icynene. Your plumber will also lay the piping for your radiant heat OR you can hire a separate heating contractor to do this. (Our plumber did a good job with the radiant.)
- Set up an account at a local building supply store. This is where your builder will go to buy almost everything he needs. But ask him first, which supply store he prefers. SETTLE YOUR ACCOUNT THERE FREQUENTLY.
- Buy or order your windows and doors BEFORE your builder makes the openings for both.
- The chaos is well underway. Full steam ahead.
- Hire women whenever possible. There are very very few in the building trades, but they exist and they have a hard time getting work for reasons that are not, let’s say, very nice.
A few additional notes of advice:
- If you’re interested in doing a little reading of a practical nature, subscribe to FINE HOMEBUILDING MAGAZINE (they also have an impressive library of DVDs for sale).
- If you’re interested in the contemplative/ aesthetic / historical side of building, read Michael Pollan’s A Place of My Own.
- Stay away from Architectural Digest and other glamorous magazines, because if you are doing this without an architect and ESPECIALLY without a general contractor, you MUST KEEP IT SIMPLE. No fantasies please.
- Be prepared for endless questions from all your subcontractors. This is the only way it can be. You will become exhausted with the amount of decision making necessary.
- Be prepared for endless delays. You have to keep GENTLY hounding everyone. Do it GENTLY as contractors do not respond well to excessive pressure. If you are a woman, however, that gentleness should be tempered with a certain seriousness or you will not be taken seriously. Do your homework, be clear, understand when you should defer to the builder’s judgement — and offer your thanks for the excellent suggestions — and don’t giggle.
- If you don’t want to spend much time cleaning your bathroom, don’t install a tub (shower only) and use a tile that is not light colored. We haven’t washed our shower in 7 years!!! Fabulous! Also, we made our bathroom a little too small and cramped believing that it would be a waste of space. It should have been bigger.
- Take suggestions from your builder — your builder probably knows what he is talking about. There are cases in which lazy builders just want to take the easy way out so they try to push you to change your plans based on ease, but in my experience, a trustworthy builder will make almost exclusively, outstanding suggestions based on years of experience. Out of the hundreds of suggestions our builder made, I took all but a few and I regret not taking those few.
- Make a sheet with a grid of all your subcontractors with their contact info, pass out copies to everyone and post it at the site – make sure everyone can easily contact everyone else if necessary. Make sure your subcontractors can contact you at ALL TIMES to ask questions or building will be constantly delayed.
- Should you hire a general contractor? If you can find someone you really like and you can afford it, do it. There’s only two downsides: 1.additional expense (but this doesn’t take into account the mistakes he will help you avoid) 2. you lose the adventure of trying it all on your own. If you do hire one, please realize that he will most likely NOT be working solely on your project. This is to be expected. Also understand that a contractor typically receives a 20 percent discount on materials from the building supply business but he DOES NOT pass that discount on to you. This is standard practice. It’s part of his fee.
- KEEP IT SIMPLE.