Build a House out of Stacked 2×4's

You can build a house by yourself in less than two months, using only conventional hand tools, and on a small budget, by stacking standard lengths of 2x4 lumber.


| July/August 1983



stub walls

The house stands on three stub walls built from pressure-treated lumber. 


ROBERT JONES

Are magazine house-building articles and real estate ads just wishbook fantasies for you, mainly because—every month—your bank balance asks the same cold question: "What in the world can you build with a few thousand dollars?"

Well, my solution to that problem is a 24'×24' home with 3-1/2"-thick, solid wood walls that contains a 9'×12' bedroom, a full bath, a convenient kitchen, a 12'×24' living/dining room, a spacious loft, and an 8'×12' screened porch. It has an open feeling created by a cathedral ceiling lined with knotty pine, the warmth of wooden floors and walls, and the beauty of exposed overhead beams in every room.

This house is both conventional and unique, because it is built mostly from stacks of 2×4 lumber laid broad-face down. In fact, it took nearly two miles of them to construct the house. Now, nailing down 10,000 linear feet of 2×4's may sound like a job for a covey of carpenters, but—if you are willing to tackle such a task—you can build a house similar to the one I've described by yourself. What's more, you can make it in less than two months using conventional hand tools.

How do I know it can be done? Simple: Between June 21 and August 1, 1982, I built the house pictured here, for less than $5,000.
 

Save Money and Time by Planning

Although I constructed this stack lumber house almost entirely by myself, I did have assistance in designing the dwelling. I'm glad, too, because my partner and I have learned one important rule from other building projects: If a structure is to be finished within a budget, more time must be spent planning than will be needed for the actual construction work. We knew that, before buying any materials, we'd have to visualize every step of the building process, all the way down to mentally counting the nails in the molding around the front door.

Though our budget had an upper limit of $5,000, we hoped to be able to complete the basic house for about $500 less than that, to allow for plumbing, fixtures, and a metal chimney. Obviously, then, our home would be no sprawling mansion. Our first design measured 16'x20', but try as we might, we couldn't split up the space to give us the rooms we needed. After that initial drawing, we tried just about every imaginable combination of dimension between the original ones and the final 24'x24' plan we settled on and discarded all other possible layouts.
 

It's likely that your own needs in housing will be somewhat different from ours, but I'd like to recommend that you pay careful attention to standard building-material sizes, no matter what the shape of the home you design. To give you an idea of what a lack of such planning can do to you, imagine what would have happened if we'd thought a 2×4 did measure two inches by four inches. Since those boards are actually 1-1/2"×3-1/2", we'd have come up 2 feet short in our wall height, or 1,536 linear feet from having enough lumber to give us standing room!

On the positive side, planning your design around standard material lengths can save both time and money. Our 24'×24' layout allowed me to use combinations of 8'-, 10'-, 12'-, 14'-, and 16'-long 2×4's, and full sheets of 4'×8' plywood (laid down in either direction). Because of the wall construction, our home required only 60 sheets of plywood (for subfloor, loft floor, roof, and skirting), but believe me, it was much easier just to plop down a full sheet and nail it than it would have been to cut each piece to size with a handsaw. Furthermore, the roof pitch we chose (when combined with the floor plan) allowed us to use 16'-long 4×6 rafter beams and combinations of full sheets of plywood, so, once again, time and money were saved.
 

Why Build a House of Stacked 2×4's?

You may be wondering why we chose to build a house of stacked 2×4's, and perhaps, like many people we've talked with, you've assumed that it's excessively expensive. On the contrary, our preliminary figures showed that a 2×4 house could give a conventional one (built from stud walls sheathed with imitation board-and-batten plywood, and finished with inexpensive paneling) a real run for our money. Besides, we wanted to try "crib construction." We believed that walls made with 2×4's would have the solidity and beauty of those constructed with logs, and yet they would be easy to build. Then, too, the beams and the pine boards used for the floors and ceiling would complement solid wooden walls, adding to the attractiveness and warmth of our home. In the end, the only non-wood materials that we elected to use were 15-pound felt and 28-gauge metal roofing. 

Buying Lumber at the Best Price

Nearly all of the materials we needed had to come from a lumberyard, yet our "local" yards ranged from 60 to 180 miles from the building site. Since cost was our major concern, we decided on which suppliers to use by comparing bids on a fixed list of materials. We had already received preliminary prices from a dozen different lumberyards, so we selected the three lowest for detailed bidding. (Those early figures varied by a factor of almost two, because some suppliers had offered us contractors' discounts while others had not.)

We gave the three final bidders detailed lists describing each item as specifically as possible. I don't believe that you can be too precise on this matter. For example, I asked for 6,000 board feet of Douglas fir 2×4's, Standard and better, in equal amounts of 8', 10', 12', 14', and 16' lengths. Plywood was ordered as 1/2" CDX 4'×8', four- or five-ply, not mill certified. At the same time, I asked each bidder to include the delivery cost and the expiration date on the prices quoted.

When the bids came back, their totals differed only slightly. So, though the closest yard to the site bid a little higher for the materials, its offer of free delivery tipped the scales. (The more distant suppliers wanted in excess of $200 for trucking.) Looking back on that decision now, I feel certain that it was a good one. In any building project, no matter how carefully it's planned, there will be some returns, exchanges, and unforeseen purchases, and it's a lot easier to drive 120 miles round trip than it is to travel 360.
 

Buying Building Materials on a Budget

One problem that we had with all three of our materials bids was that they exceeded our budget. Consequently, before we could accept one and get started on the building, something had to go. One sizable expense was windows and doors. For example, the lowest price on a prehung, solid-core door was $135, and we needed two of them. Then there were the interior doors and seven windows, which brought the total to more than $800.

We definitely were not willing to compromise on window area, since too little natural lighting can turn even the best space into a cell. We therefore looked into using Utility- or Economy-grade lumber instead of the Standard we'd planned on, but that offered only a $150 saving up front, and would surely mean that more wood would be wasted on culls and cutting. So we rejected that possibility as false economy. What about roll roofing instead of the more expensive metal that we'd had in mind? That change would have provided considerable initial savings, but sun, hail, and snow would have brought on early repair and replacement: more false economy.

After discussing many other conceivable compromises, we somehow came upon the idea of checking out salvage yards. Though the first one we went to carried nothing but high-priced junk, the second had an excellent selection of good merchandise at reasonable cost. We picked up windows that had been ripped out of a doctor's house during remodeling and doors from an old telephone company office. All told, we left the yard with all our doors and more window area than we'd thought we could afford, for only $200.

Auctions also helped us meet our budget by providing a 4-1/2'-long cast-iron bathtub for $3.00, along with a toilet, a cast-iron sink, faucets, and another old tub for a total of $5.00. (One bathtub ended up as a watering trough for our horses.) Our kitchen counter tiles came from another auction, where we picked up more than 100 of the 6"×6" pieces for a mere $6.50. (For first-rate buying advice, I recommend Randy Kidd's article, "Farm Auction.")
 

tje
8/11/2016 1:25:05 AM

Great article! You've given me inspiration to do it myself. I like your advice about planning. With proper planning and a computer, I could build the entire thing virtually, then see where corrections needed to be made. I could mark all the boards and materials, and go from there. Thanks! One question: You say the bathroom is functional. Kitchen as well? Where do you get your water, and the power to pump it, since you have no electricity? Thanks again. Great job. Jim


bryan comeaux
11/17/2011 12:04:57 PM

why not build the floor roof and interior walls the same way build cheap live free they cant win if were not paying them






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