Step 2 – Site Preparation

The requirements for this step will certainly vary widely, but it basically involves getting all of the services you need to use while you are building.  I will be living on my lot at the same time as I am building so I’m going to need more services to start than someone who has a home away from their lot.  In addition, there may be some steps that the county requires you to complete before you can even apply for a building permit.  All of this information can be found at the county building office or on their website.

While I was lucky enough to find a lot that already had a water meter installed, I still needed to install a septic system (no sewer connection available), temporary power, internet access, and a temporary dwelling to reside in for the duration of the build.  For the septic system, the county requires that a licensed engineer completes the design, but allows the homeowner to complete the installation.  I will have yet another chance to Save Sustainably by installing my own septic system and will be sharing that with you as well in the coming weeks.  The county health code has an entire section devoted to septic installation (referred to as On-Site-Sewage or OSS) and lays out very specific requirements regarding the location and details of the installation.  As part of my 9 month training, I learned how to use a CAD program called Rhinoceros and used it to design the house.  I also used it to create a rough OSS design that you can check out.

I accomplished this by first researching the local building health code which has an entire section devoted to OSS.  Next, I plotted out the property lines on Rhino.  Using the required setbacks from the health code, I was able to map out possible places I could put the drain field and reserve field for the OSS.  One of the few downsides to the lot I chose is that there is very little legal room to place these fields.  The lot is over a third of an acre, but it has a beautiful canal on one side and the health code mandates that no drain field can be placed within 100 feet of a natural water supply.  This makes sense, as modern man has discovered it isn’t very sanitary to ingest fecal matter.  Unfortunately, it means that of my 16,360 square foot lot, only 3000 square feet of it is available for a drain field.  This fraction of the land is further compressed due to the fact that the drain field must be a minimum of 9 feet wide, yet a large strip of the 3000 square feet is only 7 feet wide!   When all the legal setbacks were taken into account, there was really only one place that the drain field and reserve field could be placed without having to invest a lot of money in an advanced form of OSS.

Today, the septic designer came out to do a perc test and survey the lot.  My design is useless without his stamp of approval.  He should have the approved design ready in just a couple days, and then the county health inspector will come by and approve it as well.  After that I will be free to start installing it!  The process is relatively simple and will involve digging one hole for the septic tank, a second shallower one for the drain field, and trenches for the pipes that will run between them.  After that I will drop the tank in and hook up all the piping.  I will be using a pressurized distribution type of OSS so I will also need to run a power line out near the tank to power a pump.  This will need it’s own separate breaker as well.  It’s a decent project to start with and I will have much detail to post so be looking for it in the next couple weeks, as well as details on getting power, internet, and a trailer to the lot.

As far as steps that need to be taken before building, I am required to submit an address request form, and the county zoning requires me to have a natural resources assessment completed.  The address request form was easy to fill out and cost $35.  Less than a week after I submitted it the county emailed me with my new address!  For the Natural Resources Assessment there was a checklist online that explained the procedure quite clearly.  First there was a form to fill out, and a site plan and proof of water availablity was required.  I used Rhino once again to complete my site plan, which you can see below. 

A quick call to the water company was all it took for them to email me the proof of availability.  I took the papers to the county office and submitted them with the fee of $460.  The final step was to flag all of the house corners, as well as the driveway, septic, and property corners.

One of the county biologists will visit my lot sometime in the near future and assess what kind of an impact my building will have on the local plants and wildlife.  He can decide to give it the green light or he can tell me I will have to make some changes in order to get the project approved.  Obviously I am hoping for the former!

Computer Aided Drafting with Rhinoceros

You can definitely build your own home using building plans that you purchase from a certified architect, but if you really want to Save Sustainably you should really create your own plans.  This will eliminate the cost of the plans and allow you to customize endlessly, maximizing the efficiency of the home.  My priorities in designing a floor plan were to minimize costs by keeping the shape simple and the dimensions in increments of 4 feet.  Nearly every buiding supply from lumber to plywood to drywall comes in increments of 16 inches, 24 inches, or 48 inches.  If you design on 4 foot dimensions you can account for all of these measurements, reducing the need to make cuts and throw away perfectly good building material.  The sad truth is that the number of architects with a building background is practically zero.  They are interested mainly with aesthetics and ease of use, which are surely important, but must be balanced with building and engineering costs.  The only practical way to get a house design with all of them in mind is to do it yourself.

Creating construction plans isn’t nearly as hard as you might think.  Once again, the county office has all of the information you need.  If you’re lucky, they have a significant online presence and you can find all the information you need on the web.  The county code will clearly spell out what kind of information needs to be included with your documents, usually site plan, elevation plan, electrical plan, foundation plan, floor plan, and detail plans.  I would suggest obtaining a set of full construction documents from a library or contracting friend to get a sense of what these plans should look like.  I will also be posting my plans here as well so that will give you a general idea.  Here I have a rough site plan that I submitted for Septic Design.

While it is perfectly acceptable to draw your plans by hand, artistically challenged people like myself may find it much more efficient to learn how to use CAD, or computer aided drafting.  CAD programs to choose from are numerous, but unfortunately almost all of them are pretty expensive.  I was lucky enough to have a fiancee attending graduate school at the time so I was able to use her student edition of a particular CAD program called Rhinoceros.  The student price of Rhino is a bargain compared to the competition at $195.

What separates CAD programs from simple software like MS Paint, for instance, is that each individual line in a CAD drawing is represented by a mathematical formula.  This allows you to manipulate them and give them dimensions in ways that simple drawing programs are unable to do. CAD drawings are broken down into curves, surfaces, and solids.  A curve could be a straight line, or a circle, or a box.  You can join different curves together, and when several “open curves” all connect to each other at both ends you have a “closed curve”.  A surface is formed from the area enclosed by a closed curve.  If you need a visualization, a picture frame would be a curve and the actual picture would be the surface.  Two dimensional surfaces can be “extruded”, or stretched out into a 3rd dimension.  Several open surfaces that are connected on all edges can be joined together to create a polyclosed surface.  A polyclosed surface that is solid on the inside of it is called a solid.  Again, for a visualization, a basketball would be a polyclosed surface and a bowling ball would be a solid.

You can actually create construction documents by simply using curves, text, and a dimensioning function, but I wanted to go far beyond that.  I learned during my training time that building a house can quickly become a headache if it isn’t thoroughly planned out.  Construction documents are not, as I ignorantly thought they were, instructions for building a house.  They are merely documents that give the building inspector and contractors a basic idea of how the house should be built.  The contractors use the plans to know what the finished product should look like, but use their experience and improvisational skills to figure out how to get there.  As a beginner, I’m lacking in both of those departments.  This is why I have been basically “building” the house on my computer screen before I break ground in the coming weeks.

If you bypass this important step, you can come across a LOT of unnecessary problems.  For example, after you pour a cement foundation, nearly all building codes require you to attach the wood frame of the house to the foundation using large anchor bolts with square washers and nuts.  These bolts must be spaced out according to local codes, usually a maximum of 6 feet apart from each other and a minimum of 12 inches from the end of each board that makes up the bottom of the wall (called a bottom plate).  If you don’t plan out this spacing in advance, one of these bolts could end up where a wall stud attaches to the bottom plate.  You would have to shear off the bolt, drill a hole in the concrete, buy another bolt, and reattach the bottom plate.  You just wasted a ton of time and money because you didn’t plan things out.  This is merely one example of hundreds that can occur throughout the building process.

Many CAD programs include free online training courses that are free with purchase of the program.  Buy one, learn it, and use it.

Step 1 – Buy Land

20170207_112642Where are you going to build your dream home?  For myself, it was important to locate a site where I could find affordable land near a large city.  Luckily for me, I was able to find the perfect spot.  An affordable, reasonably sized plot near the beach just a half hour away from one of my favorite cities in the entire world.  It was a stroke of luck that I can’t possibly see how others can duplicate but the stars aligned and I now own a small patch of the world and no bank or other can lay claim to it.  Here’s how it came together…

I began by listing my priorities out.  I will be building solo, so it was important for me to have a large city nearby where I could utilize meetups to balance my building time with social time.  I needed to ensure I had access to electricity, water, and sanitation.  To cut out engineering costs, I needed a plot that was only mildly sloped and with decent load bearing soil.  On my wish list was a view and proximity to a beach.

The optimal location became quite apparent when my brother told me about a geographic anomaly by the name of Point Roberts.  A quick half hour drive from downtown Vancouver, BC and just a few hundred feet from its million dollar, overpriced southern suburbs is a small peninsula that crosses south below the 49th parallel that marks the border between Washington state and British Columbia.  Home prices below this invisible line are a fraction of the cost of similarly sized homes on the Canadian side, mostly due to a lack of jobs and high schools in the city.  Thanks to I had no need for a job and it will be at least 20 years before any future children of mine are in need of a high school education.

My decision became relatively simple at this point as the city of Point Roberts has limited lots available and only 3 realty companies that serve the area.  I used their websites to sift through all their available inventory, and after contacting several of the realtors with some minor questions I chose the one that had been the most accessible.  I made an offer on my favorite lot and included several “feasibility contingencies” to ensure that I had sufficient time to thoroughly research it before the deal was sealed.  Some examples of good feasibility contingencies to include but are absolutely not limited to:

  • Zoning – are single family residences even allowed?  Up to what size?  Is the plot of land big enough to accomodate that size with legal property setbacks?
  • Availability and installation cost of utilities – water? electricity? gas?  sanitiation (sewer, septic)? internet and/or phone? Waste collection?
  • HOA – are there any community dues and/or regulations that would ruin your idea of a perfect home? What if you happen to be a dog lover and the HOA has bylaws that forbid them?
  • City / Neighborhood – are you sure this is where you want to live? what are the hospitals, police, schools, and fire fighting facilities like?  what are the neighbors like?  Spend some time in the city and make absolutely sure you want to live there
  • Site characteristics – How is the soil?  Is the lot sloped? Is it in a flood plain?
  • Building/ Impact Fees – some cities charge ungodly sums of money to discourage people from building new houses in an effort to control population.  You will certainly have to pay building permit fees as well as countless others.  Know what you are getting yourself into and be prepared to budget for these unavoidable costs.

You will most likely have to lay down some money as earnest deposit to prevent the sellers from bargaining with another party while you are researching all of these items.  You may also have to fork over some money for a soils test, property survey, etc.  Once you have done enough research to be thoroughly convinced that you know exactly what you are getting into, the local title company will accept your funds, walk you through the signing process, and record the title transfer with the county.





This site is a novice attempt to create a resource for intelligent people with excess time that wish to get the biggest bang for their buck when it comes to Saving Sustainably.  These days, most people spend the vast majority of their income on housing, especially those that wish to live in a large metropolis with short commutes to work and endless options for friendship, entertainment, and cuisine.  These dwellings consume vast quantities of gas, electricity, and water, which only add to their high price tags.  The supplies of these resources are finite, and their exploitation tends to cause pollution and hardships for wildlife.  Building a water and energy efficient home is the number one way a person can save a ton of money and help the environment all at the same time.  The problem is that building a house seems like an insurmountable task for the average person.  It seems to take an entire army of trades to get the job done, with plumbers, electricians, roofers, framers, masons, and on and on and on.  I am setting out to prove that conventional wisdom wrong.

I’ve used the last 9 months to acquire some basic construction and design skills, and in the process I’ve realized the dirty truth that the average house is not constructed very well at all.  The entire industry focuses on getting the job done as quickly as possible and using paint and drywall to cover up the lack of attention to detail.  Just think about it, every contractor out there is paid by the job rather than by the hour.  Their method of payment influences them to cut as many corners as they can get away with.  Since the majority of problems with houses aren’t discovered until several years after their completion, it has become relatively easy for them to get away with completing shoddy work.  The drywall crew and painters come by and cover it all up, and homeowners wonder why their heating and cooling bills are so high, why it is so easy for insects to move in with them, and why they can hear and smell everything from the next block over.  The answer is simple.  If you peel back the paint and drywall from the average home, you will find a house that is more of a swiss cheese than an impenetrable, protective haven.  The workmanship is so bad in many cases, that I’m willing to bet that anyone willing to invest their time in attention to detail can do a better job.  What’s more, is they can do it far cheaper, and can customize their home as much as they want.

DISCLAIMER: I am an unlicensed beginner.  This site is meant to be a resource, not an instruction manual.  I volunteered several months of my time to acquire some basic safety, design, and construction skills, and anyone looking to build their own home is strongly advised to do likewise.  Keep in mind that building codes vary from country to country, state to state, and even county to county.  The laws that pertain to the construction of my home may vary substantially from the laws that pertain to your specific building lot.