Monthly Archives: February 2013

Painting problem at the ceiling

painterWhen I was building our house, (the one we are living in now) one of our decisions was to go with painting the ceilings, as opposed to a textured surface. I had not attempted any knockdown, or more elaborate types of texture before, and I am not fond of “popcorn stippling”. A lack of time also entered into the decision.

We used the usual method of painting on a primer sealer over the finished wall board which we then top coated. The First choice was a tinted “velvet” paint. We were not satisfied with the results. The color darkened the room too much, and the finish left much to be desired, with wide streaks of what seemed to be a different shade, that showed when the light struck It at the wrong angle.

We tried painting once more with a white ceiling paint, and were disappointed when the same type of streaks appeared, just in different places. Not one to give up easily, I tried coating it again, being very careful to get an even layer of paint. It looked fine until it dried. Once again, I had only succeeded in moving the streaks around.

Painting a strip along the ceiling the wall color can add interest and avoid those tricky corners

Painting a strip along the ceiling the wall color can add interest and avoid those tricky corners

Getting rather annoyed by this time, and using words like drat and darn profusely, I had almost reached the point of using texture after all. Of course, we were now living in the house, which would make this option that much more disrupting, what with protecting furniture and working around it. In the end, we decided to live with it for the time being. After all, the streaks only showed up from certain angles and in the daytime.

The sale of our house (mentioned in another post) had fallen through, and instead of placing it back on the market, we have rented it. This meant that the place needed to be freshened up by painting. Yesterday, I decided to tackle that annoying ceiling again (had to cover those squished bugs anyway).

I used a popular brand name white ceiling paint which offered a substantial mail in rebate. I purchased enough for my new house as well.

I thought that the streaks may have been dry lines that occurred because of warmth at ceiling level, and a large room, that caused delay in returning to the painted edge. (Did that make any sense?)

Since it is still winter here, I allowed the house to cool to about 18 degrees ( about 64 Fahrenheit). As a further measure, I made the roller strokes parallel to the light sources. I was as careful as possible to get an even coating of paint.

Voila!!! When the paint dried the streaks were no longer visible. In fact, there were only very minor imperfections, which were likely caused by my old eyes missing things. We are very satisfied with the result. Texture is not going to be necessary after all.

I think the temperature, when painting the ceiling was the major factor that affected the final appearance. I know that I will not again attempt to paint a large flat ceiling unless I have cool conditions. I likely have more paint on this ceiling than would normally be required over 20 years.

I have heard of others having this same problem when painting ceilings, and would be interested in any comments on their experience.

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Building your retirement house

Many new home builders are building a house for retirement.

I am. In fact it is the second home I am building for our golden years. We don’t have a lot of gold to do it with though. We still love the first effort but have decided to move to a location closer to family and a major center.

There is not much doubt that you will develop different needs as you age so it is only wise to incorporate some special features into a retirement house. So far we have been lucky and have not many special needs but they could certainly develop quickly. Getting old is a pain but the alternative is not so good either.

For a humorous look at aging  check out this site

It is common as we age to develop arthritis in our hands. This can make it difficult and painful to grasp and turn things such as faucets and doorknobs. Single handle faucets in the kitchen and bathrooms can be operated with you wrists or elbows. Lever door handles throughout the house add the same ease as well as taking less strength to operate.

Putting higher toilets with grab bars beside them in the bathrooms can make getting on and off the throne much easier. There is very little extra cost if done during construction. A dual flush toilet can save water if you find you have to make more frequent trips to the john.

IMG_1108Walk in or roll in showers are a godsend if you have difficulty getting in and out of the bath. They should have a seat and a sturdy hand rail. Shower doors instead of a curtain offer some extra protection against falls. Make sure the shower will reach the seat. The one piece fiberglass units are excellent for new construction and the cost is comparable to a tub with surround. Another option are walk in tubs but somewhat more pricey. You will still need a tub for those times when young grandchildren come for a visit or if you have a pet that needs an occasional scrub. Put lots of grab handles in your bathrooms, they are a common area for falls. If someone in your family may be confined to a wheel chair consider a lower vanity and mirror in an accessible bath. If there is more than one senior in your household you will need more than one bathroom. Natures call can be much more insistent as you age and you may be desperate at times. Of course if there are children in a family then two or more bathrooms will be very stress relieving as well.

Plan for doors wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair and provide at least one ramp for access to the house. Make certain all steps, ramps and decks have hand and guard rails. This is a good practice even if it does not seem likely anyone in your family will require them. Your friends are getting older too. Make sure entries are well lit. Install seats at entries for removing or putting on footwear.

If you plan for an attached garage with easy access to the house you will not have to walk from the car on icy sidewalks or driveways. It might save you a broken hip or worse. This is a good place for a ramp. A lift could also be an option.

Me in retirementThe less stair steps in your home the better.

Mobility almost always suffers after retirement and the more senior friendly your home the longer you will be able to remain in it. Consider building a home without a basement or a second story. If steps are necessary try to keep them out of the weather so they do not become slippery from ice or rain. Choose flooring that gives a better footing. If it is shiny it can probably be slippery. Add non slip finishes to steps, ramps and concrete floors if needed. Bathtubs and showers may also need attention.

It is more difficult and costly to make a kitchen handicapped friendly and in some cases it may become inconvenient for others. Decisions here would depend on you families situation.

Good lighting becomes more important as eyesight dims and deserves consideration.

Make certain that house numbers are are well lit and can be easily seen from the street so that emergency services can find you quickly.

Take a careful look at security measures. Seniors are sometimes percieved as easy prey.

Finally, build your house for as low maintenance as possible including ease of cleaning. It may not be as easy to attend to routine chores as you grow older and if you are on a fixed income hiring may not be an option. And retirement is just that. You should not put yourself in the position of having to do anything.

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Permits and building codes

To build your own house, in virtually any jurisdiction in North America , you will be required to purchase various permits, and to follow strict codes.

I am sure this is also true in most of the developed world. In most areas, you will be allowed to do all or most of your own work as long as you have the proper permits. There may be some exceptions from concern for public safety.

Both Canada and the U.S. have national building codes, but permitting as well as enforcement is normally provided at a local level. There are also state, provincial and municipal codes that may be more specific regionally. Some developments, subdivisions, and historic districts may have their own requirements. These are sometimes as specific as the style of windows and doors and exterior finishes. Each project may have to be approved by a board established for that specific purpose, or by a development officer.

The first step required will likely be a development permit, which is issued by the municipality, when they are satisfied that your project fits within their land use by-laws. Land use by-laws are often published on a communities website. If your plans do not fit strictly within their rules, you may still be issued permits, if an exception is granted by the municipal planning commission, or the governing body. There may be an extra fee for dealing with exceptions. A detailed site plan and a project description will be the minimum requirements of the application, but other documentation may be required. In the case of a relaxation of by-laws, a period for appeal will be allowed, for persons claiming to be affected by the development. You will have several avenues of appeal yourself, if your permit application is not approved. Fees vary widely. In two municipalities that I know of the fee is 60 dollars, and 100 dollars for the basic development permit.

Other permits that may be required for residential construction, include building, electrical, plumbing, gas fitting, and private waste water. Your design and location determine which you need. Costs for these permits can run into the thousands, if your plan is for a large house. Prices are often determined by the expected cost of the home. The building permit application will require a copy of the development permit, and detailed drawings with floor plans, elevations, and construction details. Depending on the complexity, the other permits may require drawings and descriptions as well. These permits may be available directly from the municipality. In other cases, the service may be provided by one or more separate corporations,often on contract to the municipality.

Permits mean inspections

inspecting the framing

What you should expect for your money is a thorough review of your plans with suggestions. Also expect regular inspections as the project progresses. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Inspectors are usually very knowledgeable, and see ongoing builds every day. They are often very willing to share their expertise with you.

Building codes are primarily concerned with safety and health, but in recent years have gone considerably beyond that. They now legislate environmental concerns, and standards of good practice. Keep in mind, that most codes are to minimum requirements, and there may be good reason to build to higher standards. Most often, the codes make a lot of sense, but there are occasions when the logic escapes me. Codes change continually in response to changing conditions, and to technological advances. You must keep up to date to avoid costly corrections.

Like any set of rules, codes are open to interpretation. If you do not perfectly understand them, consult with the inspectors. They are the ones who has the final say, if you do not want to get involved in time consuming appeal processes.

Do not be tempted to start construction without the appropriate permits. Although the level of enforcement varies considerably, municipalities have the authority to issue stop work orders, and even to tear down a non conforming structure in some cases. Any action they take will likely be at your cost, and they do have the power to collect.

My own opinion of permitting, is that it is a good process that helps insure a better built home

Permits do not offer complete protection against shoddy workmanship or poor design. Your own diligence is still required.

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Working safely

 It is difficult to over stress safety, whether it is working safely, or safe design, when building your house.

The most important measure for working safely on the job site, is to always be aware of your surroundings, and the locations of your co-workers or employees. If you see dangerous situations or practices, correct them or at least point them out. Some situations present an immediate peril, while other are a threat to general health. As an example, smoke or dust can be a threat to future health, while missing saw guards and open stairwells are an immediate peril. Before starting work, look around carefully to identify possible dangers.

The most obvious dangers are less likely to be the cause of accidents, than the more subtle and less noticeable ones. Workers are aware of a roof edge, but may not expect a hole in the floor, such as a stairwell, where a step backwards can hurt.

A proper  saw guard for working safely

a proper guard

Missing or inoperable guards on saws, or other spinning equipment, is extremely dangerous. Get them fixed immediately, or discard the tool. The missing fingers you see on some carpenters are usually the result of a saw without a guard. While it is true that modern medicine can often reattach severed digits, they will probably never work the same, and they will hurt for a long time. I once ran a finger between a belt and pulley. Luckily the belt was quite loose so I still have that finger, but it “sho nuff did pain me some, pard”.

Keep the work area clean. Working safely amongst a mess is impossible. Debris creates tripping hazards , and dust to get in your eyes and lungs. Piercings from nails are are painful, and can result in infection or disease. Discarded knife blades are still sharp enough to be dangerous. Cleaning up after yourself is the simplest safety measure of all, and the most often neglected. Tradesmen are often the worst offenders. Leaving their messes for others to clean up.

A messy desk may only be a sign of poor organization, but a messy construction site shows a disregard for worker safety.

Be careful when handling long material. It is quite easy to whack someone alongside the head when you have a 16 foot 2 x4 over your shoulder.

Whats overhead? Make sure everything up there is secure, and try not to have some one working directly under another. Don’t leave heavy tools such as hammers on ladders, ledges, or on the top of walls. They usually shake loose when your head or toes are directly underneath. Poorly secured and braced walls or trusses are also a hazard.

The higher you are, the more likely you are to get hurt, if you fall. The steeper and more slippery the surface, the more likely you will fall. For working safely, utilize safety harnesses, and/or guardrails when appropriate.

Weather can create dangerous situations.

Visibility can be compromised, surfaces can become slippery, poorly secured walls can blow down, and material might be blown around. A sheet of plywood carried by the wind is extremely dangerous. Your balance may be affected by wind, and you could be blown of a roof. Avoid working, or find a safe area when the weather is threatening.

Power nailers can give painful wounds, and nails can fly a good distance. Wear eye protection at all times. My wife was once working in a hospital, when part of a floor was brought in, with a fellows foot nailed to it. Happily, they sawed out a piece of the floor instead of taking off the fellows leg. In either case, the boss was not a happy man.

working safely with electricity

A shocking situation

Electricity can kill. It is hard to imagine working without electricity or power tools today, but electricity must be handled with respect. It is equally dangerous whether supplied from the grid, or by portable equipment. Be extra wary, when working on wet ground, or when on a roof. Look above you before moving ladders, or lifting equipment, to be certain they will not contact overhead wires. Utilize insulating footwear, and use fiberglass ladders, when working around electricity. Most of us have sawed off our electric cords at some time, and the usual result is no more than sparks and annoyance, but if you were standing in a puddle of water with a poorly insulated tool, the results could be worse. Water and electricity can be a dangerous combination.

Once as a young buck, I dropped a tool after getting a shock from it while standing on wet ground. For some reason, I decided to turn the switch off with my foot. Wet ground, wet boots, the result was a severe jolt running from one foot to the other. Besides the pain, it could have adversely affected my reproductive abilities.

Death is often the result of being run over, or crushed by heavy equipment.

Be extra careful when working near, or operating heavy equipment. Make sure there are no children nearby. Use the safety belts, if they are supplied. I have been left hanging from a safety belt when I slipped into an excavation with a skid steer, but I could have been ejected, and crushed beneath it. When leaving the unit,, always make sure that buckets, blades or whatever are secured,  or firmly on the ground. Children are fascinated by these huge toys, and can inadvertently lower bucket or blade on someone.

Hard hats, safety glasses, steel toed boots, gloves, and sturdy, well fitted clothing are important.

Tool belts are very handy, and used by many workers. They can, however, be hard on your back and often get caught on things. For my self, I prefer a vest with shoulder straps, or suspenders on my tool belt. It also helps keep my pants on. Overalls with a bib and many pockets are also a good choice.

ladder safety

Look out below

Working safely with ladders and scaffolds is essential. Falls can be deadly. Learn the proper way to set a ladder and do not overextend yourself when working off them. It is pretty scary to ride your ladder to the ground, and not as entertaining as the rodeo. Ladder accidents are often used in the movies for comedy, but are not so funny when they happen to you. Secure your ladder when working on a roof. I have spent considerable time trying to get someones attention when my ladder blew down. Pretty unproductive.

Make certain that scaffolding is properly set up, and sturdy enough for the job. You might come through the fall alright, if a scaffold should collapse, but all that crap falling on top of you can be really painful.

Use your tools as they were intended. Trying to cut rebar with a circular saw can result in lots of flying teeth, perhaps your own.

Watch your eyes around lasers or welders. The intense light can be damaging.

Splinters are a common hazard that are not often dangerous, but are always painful. Use a firm grip when handling wood or steel, and avoid sliding your hands, or other unprotected body parts, over the material. Use gloves when you can.

Wear dust masks or respirators, when working with insulation, sawing material that could contain hazardous ingredients, or when using dangerous and volatile chemicals. Try to work in well ventilated areas.

Always be wary of fire ,and possible sources of ignition.

Remember that any injury large or small, means reduced efficiency, wasted time, and money lost, as well as discomfort and risk to life and limb.

Accidents can happen, in spite of the level of care, so it is wise to have paid up workers compensation, or other appropriate insurance. Working safely will keep your claims down, and your costs low.


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Surprise complications when building your home

When you build your own home, you are going to run into surprise complications that are inconvenient, and often expensive.

This is why, earlier in this blog, I advocated budgeting an extra 20% for eventualities that you may not foresee.



Yesterday, I stopped at our municipal offices to inquire about the provision of water and sewage services to our building lot. Something that I should have done before we purchased the lot, and I hope my experience will prod others to be more diligent.

I had made an assumption from a quick glance that water and sewer services were readily available, since there were fire hydrants at both ends of the block, and the lot across the street appeared to have water and sewer services. A dig in at 90 degrees should be simple and cost about 2000.00 dollars, even if there was no cost sharing by the municipality. To my surprise, that although a water service was no problem, there was not a sewer service to the front of our lots that I could use. The municipal plans showed that the sewer main ended about 100 ft. (30.48m) from where I needed it. It would be our responsibility to extend it the needed distance.

A quick mental calculation told me that the cost could now run up to 10,000.00 dollars although I have not yet confirmed this. Needless to say a big chunk of my 20% contingency is already gone, and I haven’t even driven a stake yet.

Although an unpleasant surprise, it is not as bad as it might have been. It might have turned out that it was not possible to connect to municipal sewer at all. Elevations could have made the line too shallow for frost protection before it reached to where it is required, or it could have required a longer line extension. I am not sure what our options would have been in that case, but I am sure they would have been costly.

Fortunately this development occurred at an early stage of our project,and leaves plenty of time for me to effect savings in other areas, to partly make up for this setback. It is not unusual for many of the worst surprises to happen early in a project. After all, you cannot see under the earth, and there is no telling what you may run into when you start digging. I am emotionally prepared for more unpleasant surprise,s and I have been taught another lesson in caution. You would think, that at my age, I would have a better idea what to expect.

tankless water heater

One of my practices, is to use the best retail prices I can find, when estimating material costs, and using these results in my budgeting. This can leave considerable room for future savings, if you are able to find package discounts and sale items. You may also be able to use some recycled material at considerable savings. This does require early planning, and time to do diligent shopping. Planning, and accumulating material, takes me longer than the actual build does.

Heating a house in our climate is one of the our major concern, both for expense, and for environmental reasons.

It is another area where I have run into complications, if not actually surprises. For efficiency and comfort, I had more or less settled on under floor hydronic radiant heating, after considering many options. To keep costs down and gain maximum efficiency, I had hoped to use a tankless water heater, which provides very high efficiencies, to supply both my hot water and space heating requirements. I have used a system like this in the past with excellent success.

A plate type heat exchanger

I had been made aware, that the code now required that a heat exchanger be used to separate the heating from the domestic hot water, in these applications. Both sides of this system would use potable water, and potable water rated equipment, so I am not sure what the reasoning behind this requirement is. Still it was not an onerous condition, since it would only require that I purchase a heat exchanger, an extra circulating pump and some extra controls. Total extra cost would be between 500.00 and 1000.00 dollars. System efficiencies would suffer slightly, as extra electricity would be used to run the extra pump, and maintenance concerns would be added.

Further research uncovered another possible concern. If I am interpreting the code correctly, a double wall exchanger will be required, at almost double the cost. The operating efficiency of a double wall exchanger is only about half of a single wall, and therefore, one twice as big would be required, and would nearly double the price again. I have not confirmed any of this, but I am concerned enough that I am looking at alternatives.

I am considering buying a second tankless water heater to supply my space heating requirements, and to keep space heating completely separate from potable water. It would not be much less expensive, but operating costs would be slightly lower, and the environment may be better served, if I can find a slightly used unit at a good price. I will comment on my success or failure in a later post.

Keeping your chin up is not a good idea, if its a boxing match. You could get a surprise.

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 There are several choices, of construction methods and material you can use, when you build the walls for your home.

Once the foundation is in and the floor is on, the next step is the walls. Despite the lesson of the three little pigs, we still build our homes from straw or sticks, with the most common in North America being the wood frame building. I will deal with this type more extensively, because it is also where most of my experience lies.

Another less conventional style of wall construction is the insulating concrete form filled with reinforced concrete. This produces a strong, energy efficient and quiet building envelope. Often built from the footing to the roof, this method does not require a lot of special skills, and is quite fast. Interior and exterior finishing is not much different from wood frame. The walls are nearly a foot thick, so doors and windows will have to be modified, or purchased specifically, for this type of wall. Probably a little more expensive than other methods, this can still be an excellent choice for cold climates, and likely for hot locations as well. An added advantage is that the concrete can be poured in cold weather.

My experience is limited on this type of construction, as I have only built one commercial building and one basement using it. Both were reasonably uncomplicated, and went very well, considering my lack of firsthand knowledge.

Conventional poured concrete walls are a possible choice for moderate climates, but should be reinforced, if there is any chance of earthquakes.

SIP (Structural Insulated Panel) is another intriguing method for hot or cold climates. Basically a sandwich of various exterior and interior sheathing, bonded to a polystyrene core. They can be of various thicknesses, and can be used for foundations and roofs as well. I will have to depend on links to other sites here, as I have little knowledge and have only seen the method used in a few instances.

Steel frame with metal cladding is not very common in residential construction. Although strong, it has the bad habit of collapsing quickly in a fire.

Wall layersOther methods include various types of masonry wall, straw bale construction, rammed earth walls and many location specific methods using easily available material. Climate and tradition are two of the common deciding factors.

The common exterior wood frame wall can have a few variations as well. The structural framing is usually 2 x 6 or 2 x 8 spaced on 16 inch centers, in cold or hot climates, to allow for more insulation. In more moderate climates a 2 X 4 wall is adequate. A wall with staggered 2 x 4 studs can provide a thicker wall for insulation, while eliminating some thermal bridging.

Exterior cladding is usually a sandwich starting with 4 ft x 8 ft sheet goods of OSB (Oriented Strand Board), plywood or a fire resistant material such as gypsum board. Next would be well sealed layer of house wrap which is designed to allow air and moisture penetration outwards, but not towards the inside. There may also be a layer of rigid insulation over, between, or replacing other layers.

The final or cosmetic layer is widely varied. Commonest today is vinyl siding, because it is attractive, low maintenance, easy to apply and very inexpensive. Although given an R rating I don’t feel it has any insulating value, as it doesn’t provide any real air barrier.

Conventional cement based stucco is still quite common. Very cheap material wise, it takes considerable skill to apply, and is rarely a do it yourself project, although I have done it with moderate success. It can have a great range of textures and colors.

A newer innovation is acrylic stucco. Although not so variable as to texture, it can be used to add a great deal of detail to an exterior. Often applied over a layer of foam board, it provides an extra level of insulation. Detail is added by building up areas with foam board. It can be very attractive.

Natural wood siding is not as popular as it once was, probably because of increasing cost and maintenance issues.

Aluminum siding, steel, various types of composition siding board and brick or stone veneers may also be used. Artificial stone or brick facings are available. Two or more types of exterior treatments may be used together.

concrete wlls

A concret walled building

If you are building in a high rainfall area such as coastal British Columbia, there are some other considerarions. With some combinations of siding, insulation, etc. a rainscreen may be mandatory or advisable. I am from the prairie and am not familiar with this, so will have to rely on links to sites that seem knowledgable. If you think this may apply to you, please do your research.

Insulation is placed between the studs. Batt type is the most common, with the insulating material most often fiberglass, although other material may be used. Foamed in place insulation of polyurethane or other formulations may be used. Although providing higher R values and less gaps, it is somewhat more expensive. Loose fill insulation is often used in ceilings, but seldom in walls, as it may compact and leave a gap at the top. In Cold climates at least, a polyethylene film of at least 6 mil thickness, should be placed on the inside wall over the insulation and well sealed. With foamed in place insulation this might not be necessary. Without a vapor barrier moisture could penetrate the wall cavity and condense, or even form an ice layer against the outside sheathing. If moisture penetrates into the attic cavity, it can cause frost to form against the underside of the roof, which will melt in warmer weather. This can reduce the effectiveness of the insulation, cause rot, promote mold growth and even cause staining of ceilings.

I am not sure what should be done in hot and humid climates, so if any reader has experience or knowledge, please comment.

Interior walls of course, require no insulation, unless desired for soundproofing. Framing of inside walls are usually 2 x 4 wood, but can be other sizes to allow for plumbing, heating or ventilating runs. They may also be of finger jointed wood or steel. Drywall is applied directly to both sides.

Older homes often had interior finishes of plaster or wood, but modern homes are almost exclusively done with drywall (gypsum board,) with joints taped and “mudded”, after which a primer\sealer is applied, and followed by paint, texture or other decorative material.

Drywall slows the spread of fire, and should cover all structural wood, without any gaps for fire to travel through. Door and window openings being the exception.

The subject covered here is too large for a single post, so I have only covered the basics, and will have to rely on links to other sites, if you want more detailed information on specific items.

There you have it, I have actually admitted that I need some help. Twice!!!.

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Foundations, basements and footings


Laying a good foundation is an important part of any endeavor in life, but extra important in house building

If you want your home to remain reasonably true and livable for a long time, a good foundation is critical. There are many choices a foundation types, and of materials to use, when building your home. They will depend on whether you want a basement for a living space, or there are special challenges posed by location, and the soil conditions of your building site. You should have a good idea of soil conditions before deciding on a foundation type.

pouring concrete for foundation

Pouring concrete for foundation or footing is hard labor

An ideal situation, is one where the foundation can rest directly on bedrock, but this is seldom possible. It is more common that a house must be “floated” on soil of various degrees of firmness, sometimes on the same site. A foundation should never rest directly on loam, peat or other topsoil, and you should try to avoid disturbed soil of any type. Undisturbed clay or gravel usually form a good base, but there may be special considerations. Some clay, bentonite as an example, will swell when it becomes wet, and can raise havoc with floors and footings resting on it. Care must be taken to provide a consistent moisture level, or to remove layers of this type of material.

Other soils may have chemical properties that will attack and degrade concrete, or other foundation building material. A soil test may be of value, but a good practice is to see what problems have arisen with the foundations of older homes in the area. Problems may take 30 years or more to show up, but we would expect a lifespan of a house to be 100 to 200 years or more.

Building on a concrete slab is a simple method, and is often used for garages and outbuildings.

A well reinforced slab will float on unstable ground, but can be affected by frost heaving or hydraulic forces. Some building codes may impose strict conditions or an engineers approval in its use for a dwelling, unless there is a perimeter footing below frost level to solid ground.

Usually a thickened area with extra reinforcing bar will be required around the outside perimeter. In cold climates, a rigid insulation will be required around the outside and extending outwards just a little below the surface to slow frost penetration.

Walls come in close proximity to the ground with this method. Treated bottom plates should be used  and the outside sheathing should be treated for at least a foot (31cm) above ground level.

Wastewater plumbing  the water entrance will need to be roughed in right after the excavation. Changes to plans or errors will be difficult to fix after the pour so be exact.

You will need a layer of at least 4 inches of clean aggregate for drainage under the  concrete floor.

You may want to install heating or ducting in the floor. Radiant hot water heat is a good choice but in cool climate insulation under the floor would be the minimum for comfort.

Modern codes are concerned with radon gas. A 6 mil polyethylene film will probably be required under slab. This is also a good idea to prevent moisture penetration and resulting  surface problems. A method to monitor or remediate underfloor radon levels may be required. Usually no more than a 3 or 4 inch pipe in the underfloor aggregate extending from the approximate center of the building and up through the floor in some inconspicuous location. Be careful that it does not become plugged with concrete. This will be required for any slab in a dwelling.

One big advantage of a slab on grade is the reduction of steps for entryways.

A crawl space Created when foundation walls are extended below frost level but not sufficiently deep for a basement. It leaves room for mechanical installations and may provide some storage. It may be a conditioned space (heated or cooled) or not. If unconditioned, then insulation and air barriers must be provided in the floor of the house. Crawl spaces are usually conditioned in cold climates, and the foundation should include insulation and air barriers. A vapor barrier should be placed on exposed earth, but should not be sealed, as it should allow for water to drain. One method I have seen used, is to place house wrap exterior side down over the soil. I cannot attest to it’s effectiveness, but it does seem to make sense.

A basement is is only a crawl space extended up or down.

basements are usually between 3 and 8 feet in the ground, and with 8 to 10 foot (2.44 to 3.05 meter) foundation walls. Foundation walls may be of one material or a combination. They may be floored with a concrete slab (most common) or a framed wood floor. Any portion of a wood floor within 1 foot of the earth, or otherwise subject to wet conditions, must be of treated wood. Basements are commonly finished to provide extra living space, and as such should have sufficient headroom. This may require 9 or 10 foot foundation walls to accommodate ducting or sound proofing.

A post and beam foundation might be an inexpensive alternative, especially for cabins or smaller homes. They are also commonly used to keep a building above ground level where flooding may be a problem, or when building on permafrost. Similar building techniques would be employed as with an unconditioned crawl space. Posts may be light tubes filled with reinforced concrete, treated wood (either solid or built up) or steel pipes which may be concrete filled. Posts may continue upward to form part of the framing of the building. Beams may be of many different types and materials. If it is a grade beam (placed at or just below grade) it is usually of reinforced concrete although treated wood is an option,

All types of foundation require a footing of some kind, except in the case of friction pilings.

A friction piling is either driven into the ground until it meets sufficient resistance, is set in concrete, or is a reinforced concrete pile poured directly into a hole, and relying at least partially on the contact with the sides of the hole to provide stability. The friction piling may not be appropriate where freeze thaw cycles could be a problem.

A footing is either a continuous lineal pad under the foundation, or a round or square pad under a piling or post. The purpose is to spread the weight over a wider area of the soil. Think of a snowshoe. A pad of reinforced concrete 8 inches (20 cm) deep and 16 inches (41 cm) wide, or in circumference, is normally sufficient. If soil conditions are bad, or if posts are far apart, then a wider footing can be used. Extra reinforcing and thickness may be needed. Sometimes a footing of treated wood placed on clean gravel may be used.

There are several types of foundation wall, but all should be firmly secured to the footing. Horizontal forces from back fill and hydraulic pressures are the major concern.

A concrete wall without reinforcing 8 inches or more in thickness has been the norm for many years, although there is no reason it cannot be reinforced, if in an earthquake prone area.

Reinforcing should be added above all openings. In some old homes, large stones were added, to save on concrete. This was a poor practice, as it could weaken the structure.  Concrete  is a good info source for all kinds of concrete work.

Although considerably weaker, foundations are often built of masonry blocks, bricks or stone. Solid concrete pillars are often added at intervals to increase strength.

PWF (preserved wood foundations) are becoming more common. Codes may require an engineers approval. The lifespan of these may be about the same as concrete, in many conditions. They are popular where concrete is difficult, costly to obtain, or experienced concrete workers are unavailable at a reasonable price. The basement and main floor must be installed before back filling. Extra care needs to be taken, to provide base drainage and back sloping, in order to reduce hydraulic pressures.

This type of construction is easy to insulate and finish, as it is nearly identical to upstairs wood framing. This is not a good choice on steeply sloping sites, as the ability to resist uneven lateral forces is not good.

A recent innovation is the use of Styrofoam blocks filled with reinforced concrete. The blocks are usually two pieces of 2 ft. by 4 ft. Styrofoam 2.5 inches thick,  held about 6.5 inches apart by plastic ties and have embedded plastic strips, for nailing and screwing. They can comprise the entire exterior wall system of the house. Although material may be costlier, construction is fast and simple, and does not require skilled labor. No further insulation or air barrier is needed, and finishing material can be attached directly. Sound proofing is excellent. About 20 percent less concrete is used than in a conventional concrete wall, so this method may be more environment friendly. A concrete pumping truck will probably be required, so availability and cost is a factor. The walls will be thicker, adding an element of difficulty in finishing.

I have used all these types of foundation in certain circumstances, and seen them used in many more, and I do not have a favorite. Cost and conditions are the determining factors. I like PWF wood for remote locations. Concrete or posts work best on steep sites. Styrofoam block is good when labor is at a premium. Posts are convenient for farm buildings, cabins, and some difficult sites. I find block, brick or stone fine for low foundation walls.

A good understanding is a good foundation to build on.

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Resale value

 Are you building your house with the idea of resale? While it is likely a good idea to keep the concept of saleability in mind,  it should not be such a high priority that you end up with a product you are unhappy with, or that is much more or less than you want or need. Unless you are a builder putting together a spec house for immediate sale, resale ease, or value should not be too high on your list. Of course, it would be unwise to build something completely unsellable at a price near what you have put into it.

Keep in mind, that if it is the house you want, there will be many more people who want something similar. The house you build is probably less important than the location when it is time to sell. The more remote a location is, the lower property value is likely to be. This is mostly due to land values being a direct result of the level of demand. Some exceptions are lake or riverfront properties, which have much higher values than would otherwise be expected. However, the values of these properties will also decrease sharply the further you get from a large urban center.

If trying to sell in a small center, it may take much longer to sell at a fair price, than a comparable property in the bigger cities. A poor market may make it even more difficult. Some remote areas may find no buyers at all if the local economy should collapse.

Builders usually build cookie cutter type houses, designed to appeal to a large segment of the buying public. First of all, the people in their perceived market segment must be able to pay for the houses they build. Secondly, the houses will be designed for the average family, two adults and one and a half kids. Only very rarely will you find developments meant for seniors, singles, childless couples, or large families. An exception is the gated retirement communities, in favorable climates, usually targeting the richer class of senior.

So what are you do? Well, if you are seniors, then build your house for senior living. There are more seniors all the time, and one of them is sure to want your house when you sell. If you fit one of the other so-called minorities, the same is true. One caution, the more costly your house is, the fewer buyers you will find. In a poor economic climate, it is the expensive houses that go down in price by the largest percentage and become the hardest to sell. Don’t stray too far from the norm when it comes to providing the basics. A bedroom, bathroom, kitchen and living area must be provided if a house is to appeal to anyone. Try to avoid fads, unless you really like them. Some of us still remember pastel colored appliances and bathroom fixtures. When the time comes to sell your house, there are a few things that are important, if you want the best price the quickest.

Your house should be very clean, and free from bad odors. Fix all the noticeable little things that you have neglected. If the paint is showing its age, repaint, inside and out. If the roof is in need of shingling, then do it, if you can afford it. Don’t forget to mow your lawn, and try to keep the landscaping looking its best. Make sure the windows are clean, and open drapes and blinds, to brighten things up.  A lot of emphasis has been placed on neutral colors when trying to sell, but I have seen houses with color schemes that I would consider way out there sell quickly. I remember one that even had some padded walls and mirrored ceilings. Unless you are color blind, there is probably someone out there with a taste similar to yours. Stage your house in preparation for selling. Resale value is all in the appeal of the property.

Get some qualified opinions as to the value of your house, and price very close to the price you arrive at. An agents opinion is not always the best, as they may be only trying to get a listing. An appraiser with no vested interest is likely the best. If you think you can be objective, you may be able to arrive at a good price by comparing other recent sales nearby. Don’t overvalue extras that may not have general appeal.

Decide whether to hire a real estate agent or to sell yourself. Real estate commissions are quite high, and selling yourself can provide a little more bargaining leeway. Agents do considerable advertising and sell houses to clients that are drawn to that advertising. When someone replies to an ad, the salesperson is prepared to show them a number of houses, besides the one that caught the customers interest. Buyers are often from out of town and may use agents to save time, by looking at more houses more quickly. On the other hand, if your house is a little out of the way, or in an area where the market is slow, it may not get much attention from the realtors whose focus is to sell as many houses as quickly as possible.

If you decide to sell yourself, then advertising is key. People must know your house is for sale, and you must entice them to look at it. You may not have to spend a lot of money, but you should be persistent. A prominent for sale sign on your front lawn is essential. Make sure it provides a phone number where you can be reached at any time. Put up posters with pictures in the downtown area where people will see them. Utilize free local advertising such as Kijiji, and move your ad to the top of the list every week or two. If your ad is not getting results, then write a new one and take some new pictures. Throw an occasional ad in cities further afield, if you feel your house may attract someone for any reason. Check the ads of comparable properties and prices, so that you know your competition.

A dog on the market with poor resale prospects

Don’t sleep on the job when trying to sell your house.

Open houses are an excellent tool for giving your property exposure. Hold one every few weeks until it is sold. Here is where you should spend a little on ads. Place a fairly prominent display ad, in the real estate section, of the paper most likely to be read locally. A local radio ad for the day before, and during your open house, may be worth the dollar. Rent, or buy, open house signs, and place as many as practical, with arrows pointing towards your house. Have coffee and treats available, (preferably some you have baked yourself, so the house smells good). Have descriptive handouts with pictures, for people to take with them, to aid their memory, and to show to friends. Have offer to purchase forms available and partially filled out with details such as address and legal description. Make sure your contact numbers are on all handouts. Above all be friendly and approachable. The best timing is likely the afternoons of long weekends.

When you have found a prospect, don’t be afraid to ask a few questions to qualify them. Not much point wasting time if they cannot afford to purchase your home. In some cases, you may find a buyer who will not be able to qualify for a mortgage, in spite of an adequate and secure income. Perhaps, because they do not have a down payment, have just been divorced, or have been out of the country for several years. If you do not need the money for another house, then providing part or all of the financing, may be an excellent investment for you. After all, you are more familiar with the security, than anyone else. Familiarize yourself with mortgage conditions, terms, and amortizations.

Above all be sure to consult a lawyer before finalizing anything.

If Market conditions are bad, you may be able to rent your property out until conditions improve.

Just be careful of who you rent to, and be aware that it can be difficult to sell a home while it is rented unless it is a profitable revenue type property. The best possible time to sell a home is while you are still living in it, with good furniture in place.

I just sold our home last week, in a difficult small town market, so have a little recent experience besides some real estate background. In a future post, I may tell a little of that story.


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Buying wisely, buying for less, buying early

Buying material and tools at the best possible price, is where you can reduce the cost of your new home considerably..

One popular do it yourself talk show host used to classify material, methods and tools as good, better and best. I think he missed one classification. There is quite a bit on the market that could only be considered “junk,” or practically worthless, and should be avoided when building your house.

I am not an advocate of the old adage, “you get what you pay for,” because I have seen that you often do not get what you pay for. I have purchased tools that did not last through their first use, and material that I found nearly unusable.

I once bought a skid of utility grade studs because of a very good price. When I cut the strapping, I found that the only good edges were to the outside of the skid. When freed, they immediately sprung into multiple configurations, none of which were near straight. It took me about 3 years to use up that skid for small pieces and firewood.

I will sometimes buy cheap tools, and material depending on the usage, but I still try to make sure the quality is adequate for the job. I will very rarely buy the most expensive, as I believe you are often paying extra, for no more than a well known brand name. I guess I am saying, that I buy the product that makes the most economic sense for the situation. Don’t cook four eggs for breakfast if you are only going to eat two.

There has been a lot of talk in the past about the environmental cost of packaging.

I agree to some extent, and am not a fan of bubble packaging. I will buy bulk when I can, and likely at a far lower cost. I am a advocate of hardware stores, and lumber yards, that sell bolts, screws and nails by the pound (or gram). I usually buy more than my immediate needs, just to have some on hand. On the other hand, it is difficult to get 50 lbs. (or 20 kg.) of nails home without the box.

ReStore outlet

There has been considerable concern with the off gassing that may occur from composite material used in your home, and the effect this might have on indoor air quality and your health. The rub is that, even natural material such as wood will off gas for a period of time, and may be even more likely to promote mold growth. Unless you have special health problems, I would spend more time and money on good ventilation, and filtration, rather than agonize over the properties of common materials. This is not to say that some products will not give off unpleasant and possibly dangerous fumes. You can be less certain of material made from recyclables, as it may be impossible to determine exactly what goes into the mix. Best to be careful, and to check reviews when possible.

All in all, most manufacturers are very conscientious, and do their best to provide the best product they can for the price. The exceptions do not usually stay in business for long, or have to change their name often.

One of the most important considerations is your own taste. There are literally thousands of choices out there, and you are almost certain to find something you like that you can afford.

Restore outlet

When buying material or tools, don’t spend extra on something that does not provide some degree of extra safety, durability or beauty. Don’t spend extra, for durability if the product will be rarely used, or on beauty that no one will see. Don’t spend money on a bunch of bells and whistles that you will rarely use, they are just added maintenance issues. At the same time, do not skimp on things such as strength, if there is any reasonable chance it will be needed.

Always hire the best tradesmen you can find and afford. Don’t take the advice of any tradespeople without a grain of salt. They may want to sell something, and they usually have a bias.

We began buying items for our current project some time ago, watching carefully for opportunity buys in both new and used. We have so far purchased light fixtures, a one piece tub surround, a four foot walk in shower, house wrap, sinks and faucets, kitchen cabinets, and much more. Much of this was new, but all was purchased at one half, or less, of new price. Yesterday, we were able to purchase a tankless water heater that had been installed but never fired, so essentially new. List price on this unit is over 2600.00, but can be purchased on sale for around 1800.00. Our cost was 600.00 with about 200.00 worth of fittings included.

Kijiji, or other free internet classified ad sites, are good sources for finding new or used bargains. Internet shopping sites are a good place to check prices, before going on your buying trip.

This is just one example of savings you can effect with diligent searching of the web, and by buying at outlets such as ReStore. Restore is an outlet for new and used building material that is operated by Habitat for Humanity, a very worthwhile charitable organization. You have the added satisfaction of knowing your buying is helping a good cause.

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Planning for savings

 If you are trying to build, at the lowest possible cost, there are many considerations and little tricks, that can be incorporated at the planning stage.

Surveyors cost money. If there is a little leeway available on set backs, and you are confident of the location of your properties perimeter, you may not need to hire one. Of course, your lender may demand that you have a survey, or at least title insurance, at some point. You must be certain that you are not encroaching on neighboring properties, or that you are not violating municipal setback rules(consult the municipal land use bylaw)

Arm yourself with a subdivision plan, a long tape measure, and a transit, if one is available and you know how to use it. Use a good metal detector, and find at least two metal survey stakes nearby. There should be one on each corner of each block, but are not necessarily still there. Do not remove or tamper with these. You will be breaking the law. The rest is all accurate measuring, and determining angles, that correspond to your subdivision plan.

If you are on a large acreage, then none of this may be necessary, as the leeway can be large..

If you are in a subdivision with irregular shaped lots, it is better to hire a surveyor as things get pretty complicated. Newer subdivisions may already have stakes on the corners of your lots. Just be certain they have not been moved.

Take great care to avoid expensive changes in the future.

Try to keep your plan shape as close to a regular rectangle as possible. Every little jog, or irregular angle, adds to your cost per square. Cantilevers and odd window sizes also add to cost, and may make a home more difficult to insulate or seal.

The use of roof trusses, is a common and excellent building technique today, but their cost can get pretty high on long spans. It is cheaper to add length, and an extra truss or two, for more square footage.

Avoid long heating or cooling runs, they can be expensive, and are difficult to balance.

The advent of PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) and ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) pipe has lowered the cost of long plumbing runs considerably, but it is still a factor. Pretty easy to see why it is always referred to as ABS.

Try to utilize heating equipment that does not require a chimney. Chimneys are expensive, steal space, and limit where heating equipment may be placed. They also require holes through floors, ceilings, and roof that may be difficult to seal well. They are always a source of heat loss. I do not advocate unvented gas fireplaces, as I think they could possibly be dangerous. Choose a direct vent model instead.

Sheet goods for construction are supplied in standard sizes. Sheathing is almost always 4′ x 8′ (1.219 x 2.438 m) . You will have less waste by planning to keep the length of walls to multiples of 4′.

Drywall is supplied in various lengths, but the norm is 4′ wide, and from 8′ to 12′ long. Other sizes may be more expensive. Use sizes that avoid butt joints, where possible, to lower finishing costs. Do not try to reduce waste by piecing in small pieces. Finishing is more time consuming, and therefore more costly than board. Careful planning, to achieve the minimum number of joints, will pay dividends in time and money.

Carpeting or vinyl flooring is 12′ and, sometimes 15′, in width. Seams may not be invisible and are a source of early failure. There will be less waste if a room is close to 12′ on one dimension. If rooms are large or irregular, consider hardwood, laminate, ceramic tile, vinyl tile, or carpet tile, to reduce waste.

 Complicated roof designs can be attractive, but are rarely necessary, and are always expensive, difficult to insulate and vent and more subject to leaks. There are other ways to add architectural interest, that are less problematic or can be added later, to avoid initial extra cost. The simplest and least costly roof is a straight gable. Every dormer, jog or angle added will add cost. Two or three in line gable roofs is not too bad, and may be useful on sloping ground, or with attached garages. The degree of increased difficulty is minimal. Gables at right angles add a little more difficulty in framing, and shingling, but is not to bad, if they add some other tangible advantage. I prefer to keep a house simpler, and add more dramatic landscaping, that can improve in appearance over the years.

One place you could spend a little more, is on roofing materials. Choose for durability and strength. Often the cost is not that high, to add considerable resistance to wind and hail damage, and to increase the lifespan by several years. The standard in our area seems to be 7/16” OSB (oriented strand board) over roof trusses on 2′ centers, topped by 25 yr. asphalt or fiberglass builders shingles. H clips are used between the trusses to reduce deflection. This is about the minimum required by codes.

I would suggest planning for 5/8” T&G (tongue and groove) OSB, topped with a shingle rated for at least 30 years. This sheathing will have much less deflection, will hold nails better, and does not add a great deal of cost. Granted, it is heavier when you are lifting it to the roof, and does add dead load, which may be offset by the extra strength. Some may advocate using plywood, but I see no real advantage over OSB, other than it is lighter in weight. The longer life shingles add considerable wind resistance ,and can have more interesting architectural profiles, again at very little extra cost. There are asphalt shingles available that are rated for up to 50 years. This may seem like overkill, but it is definitely an environmental advantage. Thats only half as many shingles going to the landfill every 50 years..

Reduce time and cost on your floor base by gluing it to the trusses, or floor joists, and nailing it with an air nailer using nails designed for the purpose. I suggest using more nails than normally required, and try to space them evenly. Screws are expensive and slow. Use a weatherproof construction adhesive applied with a caulking gun. Use the large size gun and tubes for least cost.

When painting, it may save you one coat, if you tint the primer. Use about ½ of the tint used in your final coat. Much more and you may miss spots when top coating.

“Time is money.” This old adage is certainly true today when labor costs can be very high. Use tools, and methods, that will speed construction as much as possible, within the limits of safety and quality. Long construction times also increase financing cost, although this is less of a problem while interest rates are as low as they currently are.

If you are hiring a contractor to do the building, then be extra careful with your planning. Contractors  love it when you want changes made after constuction has begun. They can charge you practically anything they want to make your changes.

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