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An Efficient House

If your goal is to build an efficient house the devil is in the details.

L'il Devil
Darwin Bell / Foter.com / CC BY-NC

Not paying close attention to the little things can result in a lot of little inefficiencies. if you expect the lifespan of a house to be in the 200 year range, these little inefficiencies add up to a lot.

The main concern here is energy efficiency, but I also want to touch on construction efficiency and on living efficiency. By living efficiency I mean time, money and effort spent on maintenance as well as everyday cost in time and effort.

One of the factors I have probably mentioned too many times already, is size. It is only common sense that a larger home is going to be less all around efficient than a smaller one built to the same standards. If prestige is the goal, my feeling is that there are far better ways to gain it.

Very careful planning is where efficiency starts. Use care and common sense in evaluating your needs. Think into the future. Are you building space for children that will be gone in a couple of years? Are you considering special needs you may face as you age.

Swain House, Fort Street, Detroit
Not so simplesouthofbloor / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Keep it simple. Complicated designs tend to have higher costs and contribute to both energy and construction inefficiencies.

A simple rectangle is the most efficient design for energy efficiency. It provides the most space with the least exterior surface.

The insulating value of the walls and especially the ceiling is very important if you live in a cold or hot climate. If you are lucky enough to live in area where daily average temperatures stay in the comfortable range then thermal mass is probably more important. The ceiling is easier to insulate to higher R values and has a reasonable payback even to R50 and higher. Most homes have a certain amount of heat layering which increases the temperature differential between inside and out at the ceiling and the tops of walls. More insulation is required at these locations for the same results. Blow in insulation works well. Normal rafter configurations make the area above exterior walls difficult to insulate well. Special rafters with a raised “heel”  solve this. The extra cost may be worth it. How to measure heel height.

Rafters today are usually manufactured trusses which are enable fast and efficient construction. Click here for a truss diagram and a glossary of terms. A n excellent and more detailed explanation of trusses is available here.

When calculating paybacks it is important to remember that fuel and electricity will likely become more expensive in the future. This will be partly because of scarcity and of environmental concerns.

Heat in the attic is not your friend no matter what your climate. Be certain of good insulation and ventilation. Choosing a light-colored or reflective roof covering could be beneficial.

192/365 - Help, I'm Alive, My Heart Keeps Beating Like A Hammer
Helga Weber / Foter.com / CC BY-ND

Even the best windows have poor insulating properties. Design with this in mind. Don’t neglect the use of natural light for energy savings.

A two-story house or a basement can add living space  at a lower energy cost. Providing staircases can reduce this benefit considerably. Stairs can be problematic for small children and seniors. There is an element of danger to everyone. My own opinion is that it is best to avoid the risk of falls if possible.

One of the most common housing problems I have encountered over the years, has been wet basements. Providing a full depth basement that is completely waterproof may be more costly than the space is worth. This link is to a commercial site, but they do list a lot of the common basement problems.

An efficient house must be as impervious to air movement through the exterior envelope  as possible. Pay extra attention to sealing around windows and doors. Don’t forget to seal where plumbing and wiring penetrate the building envelope.

Energy efficient lighting is a consideration. Flourescent and LED lighting uses less electricity than incandescent. In a climate like much of Canada it becomes a little more complicated. incandescent bulbs lose efficiency by generating heat. In winter, in Canada, that heat is definitely not wasted. In summer the days are long and little light is needed. Other considerations are how that electricity is generated and what fuel you use for heating. My own guess is that  the extra cost of flourescent or LED bulbs may not be justified in all cases. Our government here is taking the decision out of our hands by prohibiting the sale of incandescent bulbs. Probably an effort to make Canada look better to the rest of the world through climate change action. Follow your own consience.

an efficient house has efficient appliances
Corie Howell / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Choose energy-efficient appliances.  Front loading washers are presumably more efficient than top load. The capital cost, however, appears to be almost double. They do use less water and the cost to heat that water is, of course, lower. There is little reason to heat the water to wash clothes, though, so much of the advantage is lost. I think the jury is still out on this one.

A clothesline is an inexpensive way to use less electricity

A garage may seem like a bit of a luxury. Actually a lot of fuel can be saved by not having to warm or cool your vehicles by idling. An attached garage has at least one less wall for heat loss. There is no reason to heat a garage above 40 degrees fahrenheit. The latent heat of a vehicle just off the road is enough to provide most of the heat needed for a well-built garage. In hot climates, just keeping the sun off your car makes a huge difference.

Design your house for safety and ease of use. Make certain that bathrooms are easily accessible from all areas, Kitchens must be designed to reduce workload. Large closets are good in the master bedroom, but do you really need them in guest rooms? I never could see the logic of two sinks in a bathroom. Do you really want to carry togetherness to that extent.

Minimize hallways. They are largely wasted space. Do not use doors where they are not necessary.

Place windows higher for privacy and to maximize space for furniture.

Do not use more interior walls than you need. An open concept is efficient and pleasant.

Vaulted ceilings add interest and an illusion of space, but are not very energy-efficient and may make your home more difficult to insulate well.

To reduce the environmental cost of building your efficient house, there are a few considerations. Cement and steel are huge greenhouse gas producers so it follows that they should be used carefully. Calculate carefully so as to not waste concrete. Building on a crawl space reduces the need for concrete and reinforcing steel considerably. Both products have a long life and this reduces impact somewhat. Review each material and design choice for its energy use and environmental impact. Environmental cost of building materials.

Source as much of your material as possible locally, to reduce the impact of transportation.

Last House on Holland Island, May 2010
An unsafe locationbaldeaglebluff / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Build strong and build in safe locations. Replacing or repairing homes damaged by flood or storm is not very efficient or environmentally friendly.

Use labor and trades that are nearby if possible. If doing much of the work yourself, see if it is possible for you to live on site during construction. This is a huge time and energy saver.

Choose your water and space heating equipment carefully. Eliminating a chimney saves considerable space and material. consider the space used by the equipment. Using a tankless water heater for both space and water heating eliminates the need for a chimney and much of the space requirements. Follow the following links for more information. Hydronic radiant heatingHeating with a hydronic radiant system.

Finally, the home that has a long practical use is more environmentally friendly, So build well and with forethought. Avoid fads.

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House Building Progress to May 15

Our house building progress has been slow, with no physical evidence of advance. Things have been happening, though.

house building progress means getting the services dug inOur development permit required an agreement with the County, and a deposit, to insure our proper completion of a sewer extension. Of course, I was not aware of this. The papers were mailed to me, but had not arrived by the time I ran out of patience and visited the office. Once I was there, the staff was very helpful. Copies were made, signed, and as soon as I paid my deposit, I received my development permit.

Circumstances including the need for a sewer extension, staff vacations, and slow mail, made the the process over two months long. Part of the delay was my own. Snow had made it difficult locate the manhole ending the sewer line, and to take the necessary measurements. Since the situation was slightly unusual, the necessary steps for the issuing of a permit were not very clear to me. By the time we worked everything out, the delay was considerable.

Once the development permit was in hand, I could apply for the other necessary permits. I spent the weekend reviewing my drawings and filling out the application forms. It is a requirement here, to provide two sets of drawings. They must include floor plans, a cross section, drawings of all elevations, details of floor joists and supports, framing details, a description of heating and ventilation to be used and a drawing of electrical. This could vary in other jurisdictions.

A load too far
michaelhallca / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Yesterday I applied in person to IJD Inspections Ltd.. The staff was very courteous and helpful. I was able to personally meet the Building Safety Codes Officer. He was very helpful in answering questions, and addressing some concerns that I had. I left with electrical, plumbing and gas permits in hand. Building plans are reviewed before the building permit is issued, so it will take a few days before I will receive that. I left with a very good feeling.

The cost for the permits was less than I anticipated, being 1147.74 in total.

I am going to stress again, the importance of acquiring all necessary permits before beginning construction. They are for your own safety, and inspections can catch possibly dangerous errors. Inspectors are usually very helpful, and available to answer questions. Don’t be a pest, though. Do your homework. Inspectors are helpful, but they are not your teachers.

You will be required to follow national, state or provincial, and municipal building codes. These can vary considerably by jurisdiction to address local conditions. There is a lot of difference between building a house in Southern Arizona and building in Northern Alberta.

Codes change continually in an attempt to keep abreast of conditions and technology. Often they add to the cost of construction and sometimes their justification escapes me. In most cases, though, the changes add to the safety and comfort of a building.

It is nice to have copies of the code books but they are usually quite costly. Changes are usually posted on the internet but sometimes are difficult to understand out of context. Ask your inspector or other professional if there are changes you should know about. Only a portion of the codes will apply to a simple single family residence. Often, books are available, at low cost, that explain codes and practices applicable to building a house.

There may be additional permits needed, in some situations, and some subdivisions may have covenants that need to be respected. Again, do your homework and legwork.

Back to our own situation. Delays have put me about three weeks behind on my start. Not too serious, if I don’t experience other significant problems.

First meet with Cherry blossom this year!
autan / Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

We have been able to use the time productively. We have found more bargains on materials and tools, and have been working on landscaping the part of the lot that won’t be disturbed during construction. We planted our first tree. An Evans cherry, which should provide us with many pies in the future.

One change has been made to our plans. I had thought to use a PWF ( preserved wood foundation) on a concrete footing. I was informed that this option would require an engineers seal on my plans, and an on site inspection by an engineer. Available engineers are apparently very busy. Since our project is in a rural community, I anticipated costs to be high and delays possible. I made an on the spot decision to use a ICF (insulated concrete form) foundation instead. Although a little more costly it takes less time and labor. It was an option I had been seriously considering anyway. The requirement for an engineer for the PWF narrowed the cost differential considerably. ICF is an easy, do it yourself method, that is being used more and more commonly. It does mean I will have to review my material list, before soliciting quotes.

I should be able to send a list for quotes to possible suppliers by tomorrow.

If my ditching and excavation contractor shows up soon, we should still be able to move in by first snowfall. If I don’t make it by then we may have to spend the winter in Arizona. Bummer!

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A house for less than 100000 dollars


Can you build a house for less than 100000 dollars? Yes, it is possible. In fact, you may be able to build for much less than that.

There are many designs available, or you can use your own design, that can be built very inexpensively. Here is how.

I am going to use a hypothetical location typical of a small town in central Alberta. You may be able to do much better.

a house for less than 100000The first requirement is land.

. Property values are quite low in many areas. For this discussion, we will include a value for the land, which may or may not be applicable to your area or situation. In my area, you can buy a single lot of 5000-6000 sq. ft. (465-557 sq. meters). for 25,000 or less. Sometimes much less. Two serviced lots, near where I live, were recently sold by closed tender, for under 5000 each. In some cases it just takes a little luck. I will start with a land cost of 20,000.

To keep keep cost down, services need to be along your property boundaries. In many subdivisions, water and sewer are located under the street in front of your property. Material. labor and equipment cost, to bring it to the house, should be less than 3,000. I will use 2,000.

There are several ways to build a house for less than 100000

By Dwight Burdette (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Natural gas, electricity, and telephone are usually available from the alley. Bringing them to the house should cost less than 1,500. I will use 1,500. I am going to assume that the property does not need undue shaping, or leveling, before you are able to build. Twenty four hours with a skid steer at 75 dollars should do the leveling, excavation, and back filling. Total cost, 1,800.

Hey, we haven’t even started, and we have already spent over 25000, you are thinking.

Land cost, services and preparation is a significant portion of the cost of a house, and one over which you have little control, other than the choice of location. There are a few areas where you can effect savings. Perhaps you could rent equipment and do your own excavating and site prep. Maybe a plumber friend could help you run the water and sewer services.

Now you need your permits. Cost for these can vary enormously, depending on many factors, but permits have cost me less than 1,500 on my last couple of house builds. It might be a little optimistic but I am going to use 1,500.

you can build a house for less than 100000 using locally sourced material

Using locally sourced material

It is time to build. We know that to build a house cheaply, we must use simple and efficient design. The house will be rectangular with a gable roof. Patios, decks and landscaping will be left for when we have a little more cash available. We will look for the best for the least, but will try to build so that future operating costs are as low as possible.

In many areas, building on a concrete slab will have the lowest foundation cost. In others, a preserved wood stem wall will be the least costly. In my area there is not a lot of difference in cost, but PWF might win if you are doing your own labor.

We want a comfortably sized house, so I have settled on a two bedroom ranch style of about 1000 sq. ft. (93 sq.meters) for this example.  Many people would be happy with less than this.

We will try to plan the house for ease of future expansion. This means planning the house with the extra additions included, and then removing them. Possible additions would include an attached garage, bedrooms and bathroom.

Although this could vary, depending on location, my recent experience is that material costs for this type of house will be about 50 dollars per sq. ft.. Our 1000 sq. ft. house will have a material cost of about 50,000 including all plumbing, electrical and mechanical. This should allow for upgraded shingles, colored vinyl siding, extra insulation and perhaps an extra bathroom. Cabinets will not be the cheapest but will be in the lower range. Windows and doors will have to be in the mid to low cost range. There should be room in this for a few frills, such as shutters, for appearance. It should allow for a high efficiency furnace and water heater. If your main goal is economy, you can probably lower this cost considerably.

To build a house for less than 100000 it is necessary to do considerable work yourself

Working on your house

I am, of course, assuming that you will be doing almost all the work yourself, without resorting to trades people. I am also going to assume that you will need to hire some help, just to stay on a schedule. Although it is more than I usually require, I will allow for 2 laborers for 12 weeks at 40 hrs. per week and pay them 20 dollars per hour. Remember, this is Alberta. Our labor costs are quite high. There goes another 19000.

There are a few more costs, which would include insurance, interest on interim financing, property taxes while building, deposits on services, and material for a driveway and walk (Just gravel for now). The 4000 we have left from our 100,000 should cover that nicely.

This little exercise has left us with a house that has a cost of about our target of a house for less than 100000.

Could we build for even less? The answer is an emphatic, yes.

We have included the cost of the land, which is not really part of your house building costs. It does, however, contribute to what money you have available. You may already have the land, or you may find a less expensive location. We have assumed an easily serviced property, but the costs could be more, or less. Perhaps you will be replacing a mobile home, or something similar, and the required services will already be there and usable. These scenarios could lower the cost by as much as 25,000.

Wise buying choices.

Planning for savings

You might have the time, and the inclination, to do practically all the work yourself. Savings could be up to the 20,000 allowed for labor.

You could go the cheapest possible on material and equipment and save 20% or more. There is another 10,000.

You could build smaller and realize a proportionate saving on material.

It is theoretically possible that you could end up with a livable house for as little as 40,000, if you already have the land. Even less, if you are fanatical about it.

It may seem crazy to try to build a house for under 100000

Not so crazy ideas

About now you are probably thinking, “this guy is a total loony.” Well, you don’t have to be crazy to build a house on your own, but it helps. It takes a tremendous amount of hard work, and perseverance, and I am not putting any monetary value on that. If you have a career paying a couple of hundred thousand per year, you would be a damn fool to take time off to build your house. It is for someone like me, who would not be doing anything else of value, or would be building for someone else anyway. The advantage is, I do not have to pay any taxes on the money saved building my own house.There are other little perks as well but they are a good subject for another article.

As an example, I built my current house in 2006, and the cost was less than 100000. This was just under 1,800 sq. ft. including the attached garage. It included two full baths and the garage is fully heated. The high efficiency furnace and demand water heater were considerably more costly than they are today (the water heater alone was 2,500 with out fittings or vent). I used shingles rated for 30 years which were more costly at the time. The windows were all awning or casement for less leakage. My backyard fence was included. A jet tub and a one piece 4 ft. shower was installed instead of cheap tubs. All the appliances including a freezer and central vacuum were paid for. I used 2 helpers for two months at 15.00 per hour. The cost of land was included but, I had purchased the lot for only 5,000. Cabinets were purchased ready to assemble, inexpensive, but not the cheapest available. My actual material cost was about 65,000. The only things left to do when I quit counting was the driveway, walks, deck and landscaping. I even managed to pay myself a modest 1,500 dollars per month for the 5 months it took me to complete the project.

We moved in 3 months after I did the excavation.

There is no doubt about my accounting since 100,000 was all I had, and I did not borrow any money.

From what I can tell, the costs today, are not substantially different. In some areas, they may in fact be lower. Alberta is not known for low construction costs. I expect my current build to cost about 85,000, including land.

I have now nearly completed my new house. For a look at costs follow this link

To build a house for less than 100000 rquires bargain hunting

Bargain hunting

Of course, I have had a lot more time to shop for bargains.

I hope this makes you a little less hesitant about starting on your own project.

One thing to remember, everything depends on careful preparation and diligent planning. If you take enough time to do this well, the rest will be easy.

Take the time to explore this site.There are many money saving ideas and alternate solutions to some costs.

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Organize and understand your time line when building

To build your own house you need to prepare and organize carefully, well in advance, and in several different ways.

If you are planning on doing much of the construction yourself, you need to be in good physical condition. Once past the planning stages, much of house construction is hard physical labor. Prepare for it by working out, if necessary.

Organize mentally, by gaining knowledge wherever you can. Try to envision the build, and prepare yourself for as many eventualities as possible. Read books, browse the internet, visit construction sites, and get some practice if you can. Make preliminary scetches. Ask questions when something puzzles you. Perhaps you can work on a few renovations or builds to gain a little experience. Talk to other people who have built their own home, about their experiences, and what they would do differently.

If you are a tradesman that works in the home building industry, you already have a leg up. Pay attention to what everybody else is doing and ask questions. If others are planning to build their own home, you may be able to arrange to trade some work. Organize early for this.

Early in the game you need to think out your financing options, and decide your maximum final cost. Plan to build for about 20% less than this to cover the unexpected. You might need to organize your cash flow and prepare a plan.

Organize big equipment for thise spot

A little too rocky?

Acquiring the land is next if you do not already have it.

Are there any special considerations because of the location, or physical attributes of the property? One example would be municipal land use by-laws. Another might be uneven or rocky terrain. Where can you access services, and who provides them. Contact the providers and get a rough idea of costs.

Now it is time to develop a rough site plan. Determine how to best position the house for ease of building, and to take advantage of special features of the property.

By now, you should have a fair idea of what you can afford, and what will fit on the property. You can plan your house, keeping it within your budget and the site limitations. If your house does not quite conform to land use buy-laws, you may be able to get a relaxation of the rules. This is not a sure thing. It is time consuming so try to restrain yourself.

Plans all done? Now you can start on the permitting process.

This may take a lot more time than you expect so start early. Sixty days is not unusual. A development permit will be first. This is where the municipality decides if your planned house is in compliance with their land use by-laws. A building permit is next. You can, normally, not start any construction until you have these two. You may not need your other permits immediately, but it is usually convenient to get them at the same time.

Take your plan to the service providers, showing where connections will be made, and make your best estimate of when connections will be required. Pay the deposits if necessary.

Arrange appropriate construction insurance, including workers compensation, if you hire anyone.

Organize some type of temporary electrical service.

If you have not already done so, it is time to determine exactly where your property boundaries are , and to stake out your house location. Be precise. Pick a point on the property from which to determine the elevations. Make sure the drainage will work adequately.

Choose your supplier, and organize delivery of the framing package, preferably for just after the excavation is completed.

Choose a heavy equipment contractor,  and arrange to do the site prep and excavating, or prepare to do it yourself.

Arrange for water and sewer connections to be dug in. This does not necessarily need to be done at this point, but is usually more convenient.

All that preparation done. Now comes the exciting part, starting the actual construction.

Strip all the topsoil from the house location, and store it out of the way for future use. Excavate as needed for basement, crawl space or slab. Haul away any dirt not needed for back fill or land shaping. Try to place the rest where it will not be an inconvenience. Here is where you might encounter surprises such as soft spots, or other poor soil conditions. Be prepared to modify your plans, and for extra expense.

Now you can place you footings, build foundation walls, and install your floor system. If you are building on slab, you will avoid some of those steps, but you may have to incorporate some of your heating, plumbing, or other construction elements in your slab.

Organize proper excavaton

Ecavation too big?

You may be able to back fill at this point. If you are using a preserved wood basement, you will need too install the basement floor first. Use a lot of care here. Make sure concrete is sufficiently cured, nd that drainage tile is installed. Exterior waterproofing must be done.

Now you can frame and sheath the house. Some tubs and showers will not fit through interior doors, so they may have to be installed during framing.

Plumbing and electrical rough in can begin now.

Roofing should be completed, and house wrap applied at this point

Install Windows and exterior doors. try to complete the exterior finish, as quickly as possible, to prevent weather damage.

Once the plumbing and electrical rough ins are done you can insulate, install vapor barriers, and sheath the interior of the home. If drywall is used, you can tape, finish, prime ,paint and finish ceilings.

Electrical can be finished at this point. Cupboards and vanities can be installed. Most of the plumbing can be completed. Heating, air conditioning and ventilation can be installed.

Have the services connected.

Most of the dirty work should now be done, and you can install the flooring.

With the the floors in, you can install the interior doors and do the trim.

organize the final plumbing

Moved in

Just the final touch ups to do, and perhaps the toilets to install, and you can move in.

Now begins the continuous maintenance that is required to keep a property in top shape. This ranges from regular grass cutting to repairing damage that occurs.

One of my reasons for writing this article is to refresh my own memory, and organize my own course of action. It is meant for some one intending to do the majority of their build, with their own hands. If you use a general contractor or a project manager, much of this will be taken care of for you.

Some of the steps can overlap a bit, and might vary slightly depending on construction types or methods. Some are not so critical that they have to be organized in this exact order.

Remember to treat everyone with the utmost respect and courtesy , even though you may feel like using your hammer on them.

It is painful to go back, hat in hand, to someone that you came unglued with. You likely need employees, tradesmen, contractors and officials more than they need you. Don’t annoy your neighbors by making noise early or late. Try to keep dust under control. Try not to obstruct traffic for long periods on adjoining roadways

Organize for inspections at the appropriate times. Give them as much notice as is feasible, and be sure to be there when they come.

When something goes wrong (and it will) don’t panic. Just stop, organize your thoughts, and consider your options. Most mistakes can be fixed fairly easily.

Make job safety your top priority.

This is what the first day of spring looked like in Alberta, and this is the Southern half. Barby anyone

Time enough to organize

The first day of spring in Alberta,Canada

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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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Preparing for the worst

What do you do to minimize risks when planning and building your home? By preparing for every eventuality that you can imagine.

Well, if financial risk is a major concern to you then one of the best ways to reduce risk is to build your house with out resorting to a mortgage. It means you are unlikely to lose your home if you should lose a large part of your income through ill health, job loss or business failure. Everyone in the western world since 2008 should know that job loss or business failure is a very real possibility.  Preparing to build without resorting to a mortgage means saving all you can or building the maxmum equity in your current home..

A mortgage free home can also be a ready source of large amounts of cash in an emergency. Of course you probably wouldn’t be mortgage free any longer.

Can you accomplish a mortgage free home or at least a low payment home? Well, maybe. If you own a home now your equity may be enough to build your new home. Careful saving, careful planning, and judicious buying may accomplish it. Once again it largely depends on how high you set your sights and how much of the work you can do yourself. For my own part I have managed to own a few homes mortgage free but bad luck or poor judgment usually puts me back in debt so that I have to do it all over again. I hope that most of my readers are a little brighter than me in that regard and a little better at preparing.

Where I live on the Alberta prairies the political risk is very low. It is a stable resource rich country with an economic environment stronger than almost anyplace else in the world. We should not be too afraid of taking on the responsibility of a mortgage. It just feels good not to have one.

There has never been a damaging earthquake nearby, hurricanes don’t happen, floods can be avoided by not building on a floodplain, and there no volcanoes active or otherwise anyplace nearby. Crime is not much of a problem if you stay away from the worst spots in our major cities.

What are our risks then? What should we be preparing for?

The weather can become extremely cold, blizzards can bring transportation to a near standstill, tornadoes can happen if somewhat rare and there is some risk of wildfire. The loss of electrical service during minus 40 degree weather is no joke, especially with a blizzard blowing.

So what do we do to minimize risk? How do we go about preparing for the eventualities?

In our case tornadoes are so rare that most people would do no more than have a plan to follow if one became imminent. We could all run over to Aunt Edna’s with a dozen beer and a deck of cards because she has a good solid basement.

Cold weather? Well, we all have engine block heaters, remote starts or garages for our cars and our houses are super tight and super insulated for the most part.

Blizzards? Almost every family keeps a freezer full of food in case they can’t get to the store for a few days.

In case of the loss of electrical service prudent people keep a source of emergency power and or supplementary heat that doesn’t require electricity.

With wildfire the best defense is probably to have escape routes planned and your insurance paid up.

All these measures can work to a degree in other parts of the world and with different situations. However if you live in tornado alley in Texas you should take extra measures. It is not likely that you can afford to build a house that can stand up to the forces of a major tornado so you should probably spend the money on a shelter. You probably will never have to spend much time in it so it does not need to be elaborate but should be large enough for your whole family as well as quests.

If you live in coastal Florida you might consider the height of possible storm surges when building. You might want to avoid second stories for less exposure to high winds. Strong workable shutters and smaller windows might be advisable. Even with every precaution it could be advisable to get the heck out of there if a hurricane approaches and if you want a house to come back to build it as hurricane proof as possible.

How about preparing for war, terrorism, crime, revolution, earthquake, and volcanoes? Well don’t build from un-reinforced concrete or brick in an earthquake prone area but it might be wise to have concrete walls if flying bullets could be a danger. Choosing a location carefully may help in the other cases. One of the main dangers from volcanoes is mud or poison gas rolling down valleys so try to avoid areas where this could be a risk. Security systems, alarm systems and electronic surveillance has become quite inexpensive and is probably your best bet against crime short of hiring guards. Don’t neglect to install good locks and to use them.

Preparing well for crime

A good security system

Remember though that risk is part of life. Don’t miss out on the good things in life in an effort to protect against all eventualities.

All this said, do not build dangers into your house. At the very least follow the codes and listen to the inspectors. Don’t allow stairs without hand rails or unsafe electrical conditions. Clean up your work sites and work as safely as possible. We have all been tempted to take unsafe shortcuts. It isn’t worth it. I bear a few scars from mistakes. I have had painful wounds from air nailers and I have a flattened finger that was too stupid to avoid my framing hammer. I have been far luckier than some. A construction site can be a dangerous place and more so for the inexperienced. Preparing for the worst may turn out to be the best thing you have ever done.



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What’s in the future

Planning is a decision making process.

Choices are made which may be changed many times before the planning stage is complete. Planning is predicting future needs and wants and preparing to meet them. All decisions should be informed ones based on solid input. It pays to visit show homes, construction sites, stores and any other place you can gain info and ideas. Collect catalogues, home plan books and magazines for cost estimates and ideas. The internet is a powerful tool. Bookmark any relative sites that you come across and actively search for helpful sites. Municipal offices, libraries and building inspectors are all valuable sources and don’t forget friends who may be in the trades. As a caution, do not take any source as the gospel until you have verified the information a few times.

Are you good at predicting the future? You do need to look ahead and take any likely scenarios into consideration. You should even consider some fairly remote possibilities if the results are apt to be devastating. Insurance is a good backup but it can’t protect you and your family from death, injury or inconvenience. There aren’t many sure things in life but good planning can mitigate the pain of unavoidable circumstance. The future will hold many surprises. I am going to attempt to list some kinds of change which may affect us in the future and should be considered in house plans or property purchases.

Future changes in you personal situation.

  1. Is the size of your family likely to change?

a) Kids growing up and leaving home or getting broke and coming back.

b) Are you likely to have children?

c) Could an elderly relative need your help?

2) What if your financial situation changed drastically?

3) And if one of your family became handicapped physically?

4) Is your work secure and what of of future promotion or pay increases.

5) If for any reason you had to move could you sell or rent your home easily?

Political and economic considerations

1) Is your municipality stable or might taxes escalate drastically?

2) Is your country and region stable and secure or is war or revolution a risk?

3) Is crime reasonably controlled and is good fire response available now and in the future?

4) Are municipal services liable to be reasonably maintained in the future?

5) Are hospitals, schools and other emergency services acceptable and secure and likely to remain so?

6) Could the area or something in it be vulnerable to or the target of terrorist attack?


1) What are the trends and what might the local effects be?


1) Although mostly unpredictable some areas are more prone to things such as earthquakes or volcanic activity.

2) More predictable events such as erosion and floods can often be mitigated if the community will is there.

Population and development

1) Could a fast growing population strain available local resources?

2) Or a declining population could adversely effect property values in the future?

3) What are the chances that your property is needed for a public project like a highway, railroad or pipeline?


Since I may have some of my readers totally paranoid by now I am going to quit listing all the perils of home ownership or life in general. IT IS NOT NECCESSARY to go and live in a cave in Alaska. You face most of these risks as a renter as well and building your own home gives you the opportunity to reduce the future risks to yourself and your family.

A future house ???

Local building codes and zoning take into consideration many of the regional risk factors. They may be minimum acceptable standards but you have the opportunity to build to higher standards. For example, you can always have your roof trusses built for a higher snow load than required by code. Security and surveillance is not usually covered by code but it is relatively inexpensive to incorporate in a new house. Some risks are so minimal that they should only be considered if guarding against them is very inexpensive.

One area where accurate prediction has proven nearly impossible is technical innovation. This is unlikely to change in the future.  I think consideration should be given to providing corridors for future wire and pipe runs when building. You just might save yourself money and headaches in the future.

And then some risks are simply worth taking. If you ever neglected to ask for something because of the fear of rejection you know what I mean. It isn’t possible to prepare for all future eventualities. We can only do our best


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Planning your dream

Planning is the most important aspect of building your home.

For myself I like to start the planning process at least six months before the first stake is pounded in. Design and planning includes the choosing and modifications of house plans and blueprints as well as the compilation of material lists, financing options and estimates of cash flow. It also may include the search and choice of property if you don’t already own a site or a determination of the special considerations of a location that you already own. Detailed planning cannot proceed until you have the necessary property secured.

planning my next home

In progress plan for our next retirement home

In our case we began looking for property a year before we were planning to build. Our priorities were to find a large lot within a small community reasonably close to family and a larger city. To keep costs down we looked for accessibility to services, a low tax regime and a reasonably level property for ease of building. We wanted low traffic area close to the edge of town with shelter and shade if possible.

After about four months of driving streets, watching ads and talking to locals we found an almost ideal site in our first choice community. It has tall trees to the south for shade and protection from our prevailing westerly winds. Frontage is to the east which is perfect for taking advantage of sunlight. There was the added advantage of a very good and nearly new garage with electrical service already on the site. The price was very reasonable and we gained possession quickly.

Shortly thereafter we spent a night in our RV (caravan to my Aussie or U.K. readers) on the site and awoke in the morning to find deer grazing on our lawn. Needless to say we are ecstatic with our purchase.

If purchasing a property there are many considerations that you should prioritize.

Of course your personal needs and preferences are the most important. Is a view or other aesthetic important? How far to work? Driving to work can be tremendously costly in terms dollars, time and stress so carefully consider the distance and routes. How accessible are schools, hospitals, emergency services, churches, shopping, parks, playgrounds and anything else that may be important to your family? Make a list and prioritize in the order of importance to you. Keep in mind that there is likely no such thing as a perfect property and in some cases you may have to settle on something acceptable. In this case consider the properties disadvantages carefully to see if you can live with or minimize them. Much of your planning will be determined by the property you choose,

Before buying and before building take a close look at the local area and at the region. Find out the history of the area. What is the risk of flooding, earthquakes, volcanic action, hurricanes or tornadoes, extreme heat or cold, sand storms or other disasters? What is the crime risk. Who are your neighbors, are they in the same socioeconomic class as you? Is noise from traffic, industry or the neighbors likely to be a problem? Do nearby businesses such as bars pose a possible problem? How about air quality? Check upwind for industry that could have odors or dangerous chemical releases. A feedlot or pulp mill can make life pretty miserable when the wind is wrong. Become familiar with the entire area so that you understand the risks. Finally make certain that your activities will not be a nuisance to your neighbors. 

None of the above factors have to be deal breakers but you must decide what level of risk is acceptable to you. You may have to modify your planning to minimize risk. However a tremendous view might be worth a small risk of land slippage as an example. Just don’t expect a lot of sympathy if your house slides into the ocean.

Now that you have a place your planning can begin in earnest. The first thing is usually to decide the maximum amount you can or are willing to spend. Once you have that figure in mind, a good practice is to reduce it by twenty percent and plan within that boundary. Many unforeseeable things can inflate the cost of a project and it is necessary and prudent to have a hedge. If you have left over cash it can be used for decorating or later improvements to enhance the value of your home or simply to keep your mortgage payments lower.

A good place to start is to determine the average building cost per square foot for your type of construction. This information, while quite general, can be obtained from real estate people, appraisers, contractors and others. You can reduce this figure by a percentage depending on how much of the work you will be doing yourself. This could be as much as seventy percent if you will be hiring no sub-trades at all.

planning your living area

Our current living dining room

By now you should have a good idea of what you can spend in terms of size. Your next step is to determine your needs and wants. Consider you needs carefully to see if they are not actually wants to make it easier to prioritize. Remember you have to fit everything into a predetermined package.

Buy a computer progeam for home planning.

Buying a decent home planning program for your computer can help tremendously and most are inexpensive enough to be well worth the money. Get one that is simple enough to learn quickly and still good enough to do floor plans and three dimensional projections. Unless you have previous experience don’t spend the money on professional type programs. I have found that most are excellent for floor plans and can be good enough to build directly from without the need for blueprints. Save your plans often and under different names so you can backtrack easily. The programs I have experience with are practically useless for material lists and estimates as they are too general in construction methods and do not account for regional differences. Once I have my floor plan with 3d views, elevations and walk throughs I retire the program and only use it for reference. They are still worth far more than their cost.

A new vacuum cleaner salesman knocked on the door on the first house of the street. When a lady answered the door the enthusiastic salesman barged into the living room, opened a big black plastic bag and poured horse manure onto the carpet.
“Madam, if I can’t clean this up with the use of this vacuum cleaner, I will EAT all this s…!” exclaimed the eager salesman.
“Do you need chili sauce or ketchup with that” asked the lady.
The bewildered salesman asked, “Why, madam?”
“there’s no electricity in the house…”

Be sure you have all the facts before proceeding with your plan.

For a view on planning from Australia.

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Why build your home yourself?

The reasons you may decide to build your home yourself can be extremely varied.

I am not going to attempt to list them all here. Rather I will set out my own reasons and a few others that I imagine may motivate another person.

Teremok in Talashkino
A modest homeМинеева Ю. (Julmin) / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

One of my motivations has always been to accept a challenge and test my own limits. There is great satisfaction in a job well done. To build your home is a relatively safe way to indulge since you can always call on professionals to guide you or correct your errors. Permitting and inspections can keep you from erecting a dangerous building and inspectors are an invaluable resource for information and advice. You must however be very careful to avoid unsafe practices during construction. Injuries to yourself or your help will take all the fun out of the project and could prove very expensive.

Another important consideration is of course cost.  If you build your home yoursef you can reduce the cost of a new home by 50% or more depending on how much you do yourself and on how astute a buyer you may be. You may be able to use recycled material in some cases and friends and relatives may be willing to give a hand occasionally for the cost of BBQ and beer. If you require a mortgage every dollar you save could be doubled over time. The last home I built for myself was completely paid for by the equity in my old home. At the same time it is important to make any estimate high for the sake of safety. Raising money to complete an over budget project can be very difficult.

The desire to build your home to higher standards might lead you to do it yourself. Contractors often in the name of profits will take shortcuts that can reduce the soundness of the home as well as contribute to higher future operating costs and some times even create possible dangers. Often they will just neglect items that could increase a homes efficiency or safety. I have seen many examples of floors and walls not well secured to the foundation and roofs not well secured to walls. I have seen high efficiency furnaces installed as indirect vent when direct vent would have been simple and would increase safety and efficiency. I have even seen sheathing blown loose from framing because of insufficient nailing. I could give many more examples of error both by contractors and do it yourself people but that is good for an entire article in itself. Some errors are hilarious.

Innovative and unusual design items incorporated for comfort, utility, environmental or other reasons may well be very costly when done by contractors because of unfamiliarity. They may also require fine tuning that could be beyond the scope of contractors. Only yourself as the designer may be qualified to do this well.

This article would not be complete without pointing out some things you should consider before embarking on such a major project as building your home yourself..

Do you have any experience at all with the many trades involved?

Each one takes considerable study and in some cases practice. Even if you hire sub-contractors you will have to supervise and do quality control. Mistakes can be costly if rarely extremely so. I have made some big ones that were caught by inspectors and in some cases cost me several hours and dollars. Some happened simply because I was unfamiliar with the building codes or did not interpret them correctly. Perhaps you have friends or relatives in the trades willing to give help or advice. Be a little careful here as some tradesmen may have no experience in residential work. In our area many electricians do nothing but oilfield and industrial work and are not familiar with house wiring. An option is to hire professionals for the more difficult parts and do yourself what you are comfortable with. An example would be to have an electrician do the service entrance or a plumber to do the waste water rough ins.

Do you have the time?

Nothing is more tiring than spending practically every weekend and evening for a year or more trying to get your house to the move in stage. It is possible (depending on size and complexity) to build your house in 4 months or less with a couple of experienced helpers but doing it in your spare time could take 2 or 3 years. It is difficult to hire help to work only when you are available. Financing is also much more difficult the longer the project takes.

Can you arrange the financing?

The Breakers Newport
A little too ambitious for your first tryUpstateNYer / Foter.com / CC BY-SA

It is much easier to finance the purchase of an existing house than to find a lender willing to take a risk on your ability to build your house. A fixer upper that you can live in while renovating is easier to finance and is a good way to gain valuable experience before you take that big step. This link will take you to a good site for renovation and maintenance advice. You could also gain experience by helping friends build or renovate in return for help when you build your home.

Finally, what level of involvement do you wish to take?

This can range from doing the general contracting from off the shelf plans and material lists to hands on for everything from initial planning to landscaping.

The route you choose will depend on the time you have available, your skills and your budget. In spite of the increased complexity of today’s housing it is actually much easier to build your home than it once was. This is because of the internet as a source of information, a place to purchase and compare prices and even courses on many aspects of construction. The much wider availability of rental equipment and the proliferation of businesses geared to the do it yourself crowd is also of considerable help.

In future articles I will deal with most of the aspects of building your home including updates on the progress of my own current build. This will be my 4th complete house build and is a downsize so should go fairly well but there are times I can screw up the simplest things, some stories of which I will relate to you in the future.

I also intend to stray from the subject occasionally if for nothing else than to combat boredom.

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