Building a House

When I was around 18 I started working with a commercial construction company based out of Scarborough, Ontario Canada. I was in a transition period at the time. I had been thinking about entering a computer sciences program but was still not entirely sold on it. Computers were a hobby that I really enjoyed and I feared that doing it for a living would kill that. Ultimately I took a shot and entered the program.

Trying to balance school and a demanding job was tricky. My days consisted of a 5AM start, a 2 hour commute, work 10 to 12 hours and then off to school which was another 40 minutes out of the city. I would usually get home just before midnight. Rinse and repeat. I lasted just under 2 years. It wasn't so much the commitment that caused this to fail but the fact that I was really enjoying my job. I had been working with some really good carpenters and learning a lot. I had even enrolled in the apprenticeship program to be a commercial/industrial electrician. My role within the company was also beginning to change. I had progressed to the point that I was managing some of our smaller projects. The money was good. I had a career.

I would later drop all of this and move to the east coast to start all over again. A much longer story :)

I have no regrets about leaving school. I learned more in my ten years of construction than most people do in a lifetime. Most importantly, I learned the skills that are needed to build a house. Which brings us to the reason for all of this rambling. In the middle of June 2006 I started building my house. I was just finishing up a 2 year College program and had already started working for them full time as a Security Analyst.

The house took me a little over a year to build (well, until we could sleep in it) and was the hardest thing that I have ever done.

Digging the foundation.

The forms for the footer. The footprint of the house is 28x40. It has three bedrooms including the loft which is 28x12 and 2 full and 1 1/2 bathroom. All exterior and bearing walls are 2x6.

The wall forms, they are already poured here.

It rained almost the entire time while i was framing the basement. The foundation wall on the right had a nice curl to it. I think their bracing failed during the pour or while it was setting. I didn't notice it until I put the front wall in place. The sill plate on that corner was off by about 2 1/2". It was a pain to correct this.

This beam was a fight. For starters, it weighs at least 800 pounds, secondly it was on a pile of lumber about 10 feet away from the foundation. I know how they built the pyramids :)

I-joists just makes things easy. Not only are they straight but you can achieve impressive spans.

Putting the sheeting down. I found that it was easier to drop the joists in place from above rather than working from below. I also didn't nail until they were all in place. Everything is like a wet noodle as you move, always triple check square and plumb before you go too crazy with fastening.The center beam below is a 17"x8"x28' Parallam beam. These things are strong. No center post required.

Beer thirty :).

Starting the main floor framing. Not much really. The entryway, bathroom and bedroom. The main living space and kitchen is all open.

Not really the way a crew would do it. I call it 'modular construction' ;). The plan was to shoot for mini victories to try and keep things from getting too overwhelming. Great in theory.

I would like to say I got those posts up alone, but I didn't. That excavator in the background and a chain did most of the work. Even with the lift though, it was a pain in the ass getting them relatively plumb.

I threw the gable end together and tried to keep as much material out so that I would still have a chance of lifting it in place. Turns out, you need quite a bit of material to keep it stable. I managed to lift it up onto my knee and raise it to shoulder height. Then I was in trouble. I didn't have enough to push it the rest of the way and dropping it would have damaged it. I managed to prop it with a 2x6 that I houdini'd into place. Luck would have it that my neighbor drove in 5 minutes later. Just enough to get it into place. He still thinks I am crazy.

The framing of the main walls. Things were starting to get tricky and time consuming. I had to build everything in sections small enough to handle. It made for a lot more moving around and a lot more assembly.

Hoisting the main beam into place. It is 2 - 4"x14"x42' pieces held together by 2 3/4" thru bolts every 20 inches. OH, and yes, that is me on the very top rung of 3 lifts of staging standing on a spruce 2x10. Kids, do not try this at home.

Putting on the joist hangers. I should have put these on before it was hoisted into place. I did get to throw on an old climbing harness though. Those are climbing slings I am lashed to. They are made of spectra and rated for 3000KG. All is good.

I didn't anticipate how difficult it was going to be to get the roof joists up. The pitch of the roof is 6/12 which makes the joists about 18' long. They weren't too heavy it was just really awkward moving them around. I would have to climb down, lean 2 against the staging, climb back up and pull them up into place. The pitch was just enough to make them want to pull away from the hanger. So I only had one hand free at any given time.

For the record, this is the proper way to void the warranty on a ladder. There were two of these that needed to go on each side of the dormer that would become the upstairs bathroom. Heavy.

Moving staging around became the bane of my existence. It would easily burn a good chunk of the day taking it down moving it and setting it back up. Not to mention the fact that I would be pretty burned out after the task. This was all done to try and save money (the bank draws didn't come quick enough). This was poorly thought out. I should have got enough to surround the house, had them set it up, and be done with it. It probably would have saved me 2 weeks of work, or more.

I was on the inside of the house pushing the sheeting up between the joists onto the roof when friction failed.

It could have been worse :). The roof sheeting was all 5/8 T&G plywood fastened with 2 1/2" deck screws.

Why we built so far away from town.

These are called Enviroshakes. They are made of 95% recycled material and look almost identical to cedar shakes once they weather a bit. They are heavy and come in small bundles. There also isn't a lot of coverage vs. effort. They were a pain in the ass. Pretty though.

Windows are in and the siding is going up. We choose HardiePlank for the siding and are not thrilled with it at all. I put a garage on the house in the fall of 2009 and used Cape Cod wood siding. It is cheaper, easier to work with and looks better.

The outside is almost finished here. You can see how the staging situation affected the shingles and painting. Staggered. One the first 5 courses of shingles were on I could work from the roof. Note: I would later tear the entire side deck off to accommodate an attached garage. The 10' sliding door was removed as well.

It was around this time that we drilled for the well. We were lucky, hitting a nice seam at 170' on the first drill. The entire depth was cased and we get just under 30GPM; plenty.

The best part was that it was right where I wanted it. I had intended on doing the electrical service into the house underground and the well is only 20' or so from the transformer pole. All I needed to do was dig a trench from the well to the house. In this trench goes the waterline and a 1/2" PVC conduit for the pump.

This was backfilled to about 4' and filled with a layer of sand. I raked the sand as level as I could and then put the rest of my pipes in. This was then covered with another layer of sand and then a layer of dirt. In this trench there are 2-2" (power in), 1-1 1/4 (phone line) and 2-1/2" (temperature sensor and utility line). The house has 2 separate services. The second one goes to a disconnect that powers a time of day thermal storage unit which is metered differently. The temperature sensor belongs to the unit as well.

At about 2' I put down a length of warning tape.

And that's a wrap. All of the lines were pulled in and terminated at the panels and disconnect.

We are pretty much done on the outside for now. All that is left is some trim work, painting and a little deck for the main entry but these will wait until the spring. It is time to move inside. Starting with the basement.

Pictures like this are valuable for future reference. I didn't finish the basement right away so these pictures of the radiant lines helped me determine where I could fasten my bottom plates when I was building the walls. Even if someone else is building your house I would recommend taking as many as you can before the wallboard goes up.

Why I called back the same guys that frigged up the foundation walls, I don't know. Building makes you crazy I guess. The truck that is stuck is actually the next load. I had to call a lot of people before I could find someone that was willing to try and pull a fully loaded cement truck out of a ditch.

At one point the wrecker slipped and that truck almost ended up on its side. What a disaster.

OK, lets get out of the cold. Christmas day 2006 and it looks like we have some drywall that needs to be taken care of.

It was probably year end blues but I found this stage mind numbing. My wife helped where she could which was nice. I put a temporary jack post under basement beam while all of that drywall was sitting there. It is a lot of weight in a small area.

The wallboard went up well until I got to the ceiling. 12' sheets on a 6/12 pitched ceiling; 1 person. Heh. I actually tried 3 times before cutting them in half.

Finally took down the temporary lights and put pigtails in where the overhead fans will go.

We had some guys come in to do the crack filling. We needed to get things done quickly so that we were eligible for the next draw. At this point we had quite a few bills to pay.

Washing my hands of the drywall freed me up to start the slate tile. You can see the pattern we settled on below. I am not sure what it is called but it is just the same 4 tiles repeating. We love it but It made for a lot of cutting.

The tile runs throughout the entryway, into the bathroom and out into the kitchen as you can see in the next few photos. It was a lot of work but well worth it. The orange stuff that you see underneath the tile is a product called Ditra. It does a few things but most importantly it is a compensator for expansion and contraction. It is a little pricey but well worth it. It does of course add a little bit to the install time as it needs to be put down first with thin-set mortar.

The pattern would trip me up sometimes, I had to go back at least twice to replace tiles. It looks good though.

Just a different angle here. The flooring is strand woven bamboo. It is significantly harder than maple or oak. I had the compressor cranked up to 120psi, anything less and the staples would deform.

The counter tops throughout the house are all concrete. My wife and I picked up a book from LeeValley about the process. The cost of materials is negligible and if you have ever worked with concrete before you should have no problems. You can get fancy and play with low aggregate levels but I went for the 5$ bags of stone mix. Add a little re-bar and cement board and you have a nice looking counter that requires almost no maintenance and you can beat the hell out of it. No pot holders required.

Because we were going to be polishing the tops, the first thing to go down was some plastic to protect the wood from the polishing process (it involves water). On top of this goes cement board which is cut the same size as the counter. I just used drywall screws to fasten it.

At the top edge of the counter (not the cement board) I boxed in the entire area. I used very few screws here and kept them high. These holes will need to be filled afterward because they will be visible. This step creates the overhang for the finished counter top.

I then made the sides. I used 3/4" plywood so that the sides wouldn't bow with the weight of the concrete. The grid is a little aggressive but it is what I had on hand. You could probably get away with re-mesh surrounded by a single box of re-bar. These tops are going to be 2 1/2" thick.

I just mixed a bag at a time and dumped it in place. I used a concrete dye to darken the mix. I used a length of 2x4 for the first pass. You can wrap the sides with a hammer to help with air pockets but I prefer using an oscillating sander with a piece of cardboard moving slowly up and down the sides. It does a really good leveling things up. I then let it rest for about an hour.

After the hour I pulled the sides off and cleaned everything up with a steel trowel. You need to be really careful taking these forms off as the concrete is still pretty green.

This is what it looked like the next day.

This is what it looks like after polishing. This step isn't required but it exposes the aggregate and adds a little more character. I used three coats of a water based sealer to finish it up. I had to reseal this after about 3 years of abuse, a trivial task and it looks brand new afterward.

This is the rest of the counter space before finishing.

My wife put down the flooring in the main floor bedroom. These floating floors go down really quick.

She also did the birds eye Maple that we used in the loft. She is 5 months pregnant here.

This is the bathroom in the loft. The flooring is porcelain. I have always hated working with it because it is so damn hard. I broke two tiles trying to get the cutout around the toilet flange.

That's about it for the big stuff. I could go on but this would turn into the page that never ends :).

After things settled a bit I finished the basement. Then built a garage. Then re-did the front deck in glass. We finally started landscaping mid 2010 and will probably take most of 2011 to complete it.

I opened with: "The house took me a little over a year to build (well, until we could sleep in it) and was the hardest thing that I have ever done." So why bother?

1) The cost of a home is about 50% labor. We would never have got the home and accessories we wanted if someone else did the work.

2) It is REALLY hard to find a good crew. Most houses these days are done piece work anyway. IMO, there is no way you can get quality when things are done piecework. There is absolutely no incentive for the person to take their time and if a mistake is made, there is even less of a reason for them to take the time to fix it correctly. Think Holmes on Homes.

3) Questions like: "will it hold?", "is it safe?", "are there enough fasteners?", "what was that sound?" never cross my mind.

4) Lets face it, building a house is cool.

Building a house is not for the lighthearted. Just because you pulled off that little basement renovation doesn't mean you are ready. I had talked to a few people that had built before prior to starting out and all of them had this odd look in their eyes when I mentioned what I was up to. I now know what that look was: empathy :)

If you are thinking about sacrificing yourself to the house gods and you need direction, or if you just have questions about this page, let me know and I will try to answer any questions you might have.

Thanks for watching.

This is a more recent shot of the inside from around the fall of 2010. I replaced the spindles on the deck with panes of glass. The staging is inside because I was lowering the overhead fans.

And the outside. You can see the garage I put on in this picture. It is 20'x30'. The tracks in the grass are from moving loads of stone to the front of the house for two stone walls I am building.