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Step-By-Step Construction for Owner-Built Small Homes

By Christopher James Marshall

Tags: debt-free home, home building, tiny homes, straw bale, natural building, Christopher James Marshall, Oregon,


There are a number of appropriate and affordable structural choices to consider in the design for your small home, based on locally available materials, the features of your site, and the regional weather: post and beam, log, or slab foundation; stick-frame, pole-frame, SIP (structural insulated panels), timber-frame, cordwood, straw-bale, or masonry walls; metal, shake, shingle, tile, or living green roofs.

Regardless of the construction style, an owner-builder’s labor is the most precious resource. The happy owner-builder knows her/his timeline and avoids re-work. Visualizing your small home construction in these 10 milestone steps will provide you with a preliminary plan that will get you started, stay on track, and finish within budget:

1. Obtain your property, complete the preliminary design, and get quotes. Even before you own property, you can sketch your house design and determine what you’ll do with it and how you might build it. After you obtain your property you begin evaluating the house site: the direction of views, sunrise, sunset, and prevailing wind; access for your vehicle; locations for the drainage field, well, solar panels, wind turbine, and garden; and proximity to the neighbors.  Submit your house drawings to building suppliers to get quotes on materials. Determine if your time and money budget is sufficient and if you are ready to pick a building start date.

2. Site clearing, plotting and grading. Determine which obstacles like trees and boulders to remove. Clearing the obstacles is best done by hand if possible because bulldozers often tear up more of the existing vegetation than intended. After you’ve cleared the site, then use stakes and strings to outline the footprint of your house location. Now spend lots of time, AM through PM, inside and outside the house outline to determine if this is the best location and adjust it as you see fit. Grade the access road; level the house footprint down to undisturbed soil.

3. Material delivery. Plan a location for the building materials that is level and close to the house.  Sometimes large construction vehicles cannot navigate small, narrow roads, so discuss this in advance with the building supply company. Depending on the foundation type, it may be better to have materials delivered after the foundation is set, because a cement truck laying a concrete pad or a crane installing poles or timbers needs a fairly large access.

4. Foundation and underground utilities. If your design requires underground utilities like the sewer drain, water, gas, and/or electric, install these before the foundation.  At this point you would have obtained expert advice on your foundation details like frost depth, snow level, ground water, drainage, soil forces. Likely your foundation will be exactly like the neighbors.

5. Walls, floors, structural sheathing, and rough openings for doors and windows. At this step you ‘swing the hammer’ and progress seems to go quickly. Remember to use your safety gear and make temporary braces as needed until the structure is sound.  Unless your materials are delivered in order of use, you’ll spend time sorting to get the items in order as you build. Don’t forget to count the labor needed to move the materials to the house and to will lift materials into position at the higher locations. Running out of fasteners or other materials will cause down time and extra trips to the building supply.

6. Roof structure and roofing.  At this step progress takes about twice as long as the walls and floors due to the challenge of raising materials to the roof level and the extra time required to set up safety ropes and scaffolding. For safety, at least two persons are needed: one to work and another as a “spotter.” Hopefully you’ve timed the whole project so that the roof can be completed while the weather is favorable, or you’ll need a contingency plan for covering the building and materials until the next building season.

7. Doors and windows. Take care when storing and handling doors and windows to avoid damage to these relatively expensive items. Doors are the realm of carpenters and an amateur will certainly take longer to install a door and may mess it up, requiring re-work. Larger windows will require two or more persons to handle and install. Don’t make mistakes on how flashing is used, or you’ll have to remove the siding and re-do the flashing, or you’ll find out when water leaks through the walls later and then you’ll be re-doing the siding.

8. Weather wrapping and siding. For some types of siding, like stucco over straw-bale, it must be completed during the dry season, but for construction that has structural sheathing, siding is simply the ‘icing on the cake’ that makes the house look nice and it could stand without siding until the next building season. This step also requires ladder work and/or scaffolding and usually at least two persons to handle and attach the materials.

9. Plumbing, electrical, ventilation, stovepipe, insulation. This hardware requires specialized knowledge and tools to install.  Installing these systems incorrectly can weaken the structure.  Now that you can stand inside the house and see more clearly how these systems are routed, it is reasonable to modify the routing at the last minute if you feel the plans were not correct.

10. Interior wall and ceiling covering. These materials are fragile and vulnerable to weather damage and must be stored with extra care before they are used. This is the “icing on the inside of the cake.” Craftsmanship really shows at this stage, or you might say lack of craftsmanship really looks crappy. Others may question the soundness of the structure if poor craftsmanship is obvious.

Christopher James Marshall is the author of the do-it-yourself small house book Hut-Topia and is a modern-day, off-grid mountain man. After weathering recessions and lay-offs every decade since the 70s through the “Great Recession,” he became semi-retired by making plans to live sustainably and then built his 500-square-foot off-grid home. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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