Step 12 – Wall Sheathing

With the roof underlay on, the structure is now safe from direct rain, but there is a ton of wind here in Point Roberts thanks to the proximity to the ocean, so wind blown rain is still a threat. Installing the wall sheathing will solve that problem, at least for the short term.

Many builders apply the wall sheathing to the studs before they even stand the wall up. This would have required me to rent some heavy equipment, so I decided against it. Another good thing about installing the sheathing now as opposed to earlier in the build, is that I was able to wait until I was sure that the interior of the structure was nice and dry. If I had attached it earlier before the roof was on, rain would have soaked everything from above and then the sheathing would have blocked all the wind from drying everything out.

The wall sheathing serves several very important functions besides acting as a blocker to wind blown rain. Most importantly, it provides the necessary wall bracing to adhere to building codes.  Second, it functions as the integral part of the outer air barrier, which is crucial to achieving net-zero.  Last, it will provide nailing support for the exterior rigid insulation.

Sheathing the walls solo, like the floor and roof sheathing, required a few creative bits of ingenuity.  The 4 foot high and 8 foot long sheets weigh a little over 45 pounds, and the top row of sheathing must be installed 20 feet up in the air.  Just carrying one of these sheets is cumbersome, let alone figuring out how to hold it in place and nail it with only 2 hands.  On top of that, I had to figure out how to apply a bead of caulk around the edges of the sheets and at window openings, and keep in mind that some of this would need to be done on a ladder.  The task at hand was quite daunting, but after thinking it over for a bit I was able to come up with some techniques that worked surprisingly well!

Before the sheets could be installed I had to attach some blocking halfway up each wall, in between all the studs.  This is required for wall bracing to ensure the sheathing is fully attached to the structure.  I had several extra 2×6 studs from a minor mistake I had made when ordering the framing lumber, so I ripped them in half and then cut them to fit between the studs.  Each block was end nailed to the stud on one side, and then toe-nailed on the other side.

Marking out windows and studs before installing the sheet made nailing a lot easier

Attaching the first row of sheathing was obviously the easiest.  I snapped a chalk line halfway up the bottom plate and then sank a few 16d nails just below it so that if I rested the board on the nails, the bottom of the board would line up with the chalk line.  Next, I grabbed a sheet of plywood from my stack and drew a line every 2 feet.  This would make knowing where the studs were for nailing much easier.  Next, I grabbed my caulking gun and used Dynaflex 230 to lay a bead of caulk along the top of the bottom plate, the bottom of the blocking, and the two studs where the ends of the sheet would be.  I also caulked all the way around any window openings that would be under the sheet I was installing.  After that it was a simple matter of lifting the sheet onto the nails at an angle so the top of the sheet wouldn’t smear the caulk, then positioning it precisely, and last pushing it into the wall and nailing it down.  Each sheet was nailed every 6″ along the edges and every 12″ on the lines I had drawn.

Plenty of caulk along the edges of each board and around windows will ensure an airtight barrier

Installing the next row wasn’t a whole lot more difficult.  I sank 16d nails on each stud just over the top of the previous row of sheathing.  This will leave a small gap between the rows which will allow for expansion due to heat and moisture.  I marked lines every 2 feet to line up with the studs and caulked just as I had with the sheets in the first row.  Then I hoisted the sheet up on top of my homemade scaffolding and then used a ladder to get myself up on the scaffolding as well.  From here I could install the sheet just like the first row by angling it onto the nails, positioning, and then pushing it to the wall and nailing it down.

The third row got a little more tricky.  I installed more blocking, snapped a line marking where the top row of sheathing should go, marked lines every 2 feet on the sheet, and caulked.  Then, from the second floor inside the house, I clamped my winch to the top half of the stud that would lie in the middle of the sheet, and used a c-clamp to attach the belt to the sheet of plywood.  Then I cranked up the winch until the sheet was at the right height, positioned it from inside the house on the second floor, and reached around with my nail gun to tack it down.  Then I removed the c-clamp, went downstairs, and climbed a ladder to finish nailing down the panel.

On the gable ends, I was able to install the final row just like the third row by simply moving the winch up to the gable end truss and attaching it there.  On the other two sides I had nothing to clamp the winch too!  After trying in vain for quite some time figuring out how to do it on my own, I realized this might be one of the times I needed to call a friend over.  I drilled holes in a couple of scrap blocks and nailed them to the frieze blocks, and ran one of my nail stakes left over from the foundation through the holes.  Then I ran a rope around the nail stake so both ends dangled down at the bottom of the house.  I attached one end of the rope to a c-clamp around the plywood, and left the other end dangling.

Here you can see the bar we used to help us lift the last of the sheets into place

When my friend arrived, I caulked the area where the sheet would go and then he stood on the second story and hoisted up on the rope while I simultaneously pulled in the slack at the bottom.  Once the sheet had reached the top, I nailed a second stake into the ground and tied off the rope so we could both let go and the board would stay in place.  At that point I climbed the ladder with my nailgun and gave him instructions on which way to nudge it so it was perfectly positioned and then nailed it down.

 

It may look pretty boring now, but the interior is protected from the elements!  The exterior of the plywood sheathing will definitely still get wet, but the water won’t leak through and the inside will stay nice and dry.  I will wait until it gets a little warmer in a couple months so I can be sure that the outside of the house is completely dried out, then I will install the exterior foam, water barrier, furring strips, windows, etc.  In the meantime, it is nice and dry inside and I will be starting on the plumbing!

A huge thank you to my friend PJ for his help, both with coming up with the idea on attaching the bar to the house and for his strength helping to hoist the sheets!

 

Step 11 – Install the Roof

The first part of building the roof is to “roll trusses”.  Although some old fashioned builders prefer to frame their roofs one piece of lumber at a time, when building solo it can be dangerous to handle large roof framing members when you are two stories up in the air.  Most modern builders order the roof trusses premade and then have them placed on their sides on top of the house with a crane.  Then all you have to do is to drag each truss to it’s proper location and roll it upright to a vertical position.

Before they arrived I made sure to plumb and line the second story walls. This was relatively easy because with the floor already in, I knew the first story was locked in very tightly. This meant I could use it to brace the second, which I did with the plumb bob and 20’ 2x4s just like I did on the first.  On a side note, if anyone ever tells you that it’s impossible to carry 20′ 2x4s in a Ford F-150 without a $300 rack you can show them this as proof they are wrong.

The trusses arrived on a long flatbed, and the driver used a crane to hoist them 20’ up to the top of the second story wall.  They came in two stacks so I had him lay one down in the middle of the house and the other standing up at the other end. I used some long vertical 2x4s to support the vertical set so they wouldn’t fall over the side of the house.   I was fortunate to have my friends Michael and PJ helping me as the 24’ long, 5’ high trusses are pretty heavy for a one man operation.

Here you can see the three long vertical 2x4s and a small clamp at the bottom that is holding the trusses tightly against them

We started with the stack that was lying down.  We grabbed the gable end truss and slid it down to the other end of the house where we slowly, carefully stood it up against vertical 2x4s just like the ones at the other end.  We nailed it to the top plate flush with the end, and then nailed a small 2×4 block to prevent the truss from falling back down. I had precut these pieces, which are called bird blocks, to 22 7/16” so they would fit snugly in the spaces between the trusses. We slid the next truss down and lined it up against the bird blocks, then used a 2×4 as a pole to push the truss up into its vertical position.  At that point we would end nail it into the bird blocks, and toenail it into the top plate.  Below you can see all 3 pieces together, with the trusses resting on the top plate, and the bird block fitting in between them.

We continued to repeat this process until we had rolled all the trusses in the first stack.  At that time, we ran a few 1×4 boards along the inside of the top chords to ensure they were spaced properly.  They also help to add lateral strength to the trusses to prevent them from rolling back over on their sides.  You can see them as the two darker lines near the center of the photo.

The second half of the trusses were installed in much the same manner, but was a good deal easier since the crane had already placed them standing up.  For these trusses, I installed the 1x4s first, and then used them as rails to ensure that the trusses would remain upright as we slid them into position one at a time.  If you can imagine how the rings on a shower curtain slide across the curtain rod, it might help you visualize the trusses sliding along the 1×4 rails.

If I haven’t made it clear before, building a house can be quite a surreal experience.  Here I am standing on top of a second story wall taking the above picture and marveling at what a phenomenal day it is while most of the rest of the world is hard at work, slaving away at jobs they don’t like to slowly chip away at 30 year mortgages.  If they only knew they could build a beautiful net zero home in such a serene suburb of a major city for less than 200k.  Oh, and not just any city – Vancouver was the only North American city to crack a European-dominated top 10 quality of living ranking of global cities.  (Mercer – 2017)

It looks a little messy with all the long 2x4s sticking up at the top and diagonally bracing the walls but this is the complete skeleton of the house!

Step 9 – Frame the Floor

Flooring is pretty basic, and if you’ve ever noticed how a deck is built then you have the gist of it.  Long boards called joists are laid out parallel with each other and on their sides so they won’t bend easily.  4×8 sheets of plywood or OSB are laid out over the top of the joists to create a flat, sturdy surface.  The joists are supported by some of the first floor walls.  As I mentioned before, one of my interior walls is a load bearing wall, so it will be used to transfer half the weight of the second floor of the house down to the ground .  The 2nd floor interior walls will rest on the subfloor, which will in turn rest on the floor joists.  Since the floor joists span all the way from the exterior walls to the interior bearing wall, they will need to handle a significant amount of the weight of the house, which they will then transfer to the exterior walls and the interior load bearing wall.  The pic below might help you visualize…

Notice how much weight is carried by the load-bearing wall in the middle

Proper joist sizes can easily be figured out from the IRC (International Residential Building Code) using a table in the same way you calculate header sizes.  For me, that meant looking at the part of the table that dealt with 24 inch joist spacing since that is what I’m using.  Then figure out what the greatest distance the joists will span is, which for me is just slightly over 14 feet.  Last, select a lumber option that supports a minimum span greater than this distance.  I decided to go with #2 2×12 Douglas Fir, which supports a span of up to 16’6″.  Going with an option suitable for a span larger than what I need will hopefully give me a less bouncy, less squeaky floor.

Lifting 16 foot 2×12’s 10 feet up in the air solo is a great workout.  After cutting each joist to length.  I lifted one side up in the air and rested it on the top of an exterior wall.  Next I moved a ladder near the interior bearing wall and lifted the other end of the joist up so I could rest it on the top of the ladder.  After climbing up a few rungs on the ladder, I had enough height where I could lift the joist from the top of the ladder to rest on the interior wall.  Just as with the wall framing, it was important to ensure that the crown of the lumber faced the sky.

The first joists I installed are called the rim joists.  These run on the top of the exterior walls perpendicular to the rest of the joists.  Above you can see the rim joist on the left side of the corner and the outermost floor joist on the right side.  Using rim joists ensures that there is a perimeter of joists all the way around the house even though the majority of the joists run in the same direction.  The rim joists are “toe-nailed” to the top plate, meaning that they are nailed diagonally.  Once the rim joists are up, the other joists are placed perpendicular between them and nailed to the rim joists, as well as toe-nailed to the exterior walls.

The opening for the stairway required a little bit of detail.  The code requires joists to be doubled all around the opening.  In addition, any time you are unable to rest a joist on a bearing wall, you must use steel joist hangers to carry the weight around to where it can reach a bearing wall.  The manufacturer of the hangers (in this case Simpson Strong-Tie) tells you what kind of nails you must use and what amount of weight the hanger is capable of carrying.

Step 8a – Utilize Advanced Framing Techniques

To an experienced framer, the work I have completed over the last couple of days would seem wrong.  It is quite possible they would never have seen a house framed the way that I am framing mine.  A few might even claim that I am violating building codes in not following “standard practice”.  The fact is, I am utilizing a method of framing created in the 1970s in a collaboration between the U.S. Deparment of Housing and Urban Development and the National Association of Home Builders Research Foundation.  Their goal was to reduce the amount of wood used in construction, not only to save the lumber, but more importantly, to create more space for insulation and save on energy usage.  All of these small changes work to ensure the house will be net-zero!

Image result for photo of advanced framing vs traditional

As you can see above, in traditional framing you have a single sill plate at the bottom of the wall connected to a series of studs spaced 14 1/2″ apart from each other (16″ on center) which are then connected to two top plates sandwiched together.  Additional shorter studs called “jack studs” are used to support headers above window and door openings.  Even more studs are used to anchor interior walls to the exterior.  All of the wood used are 2x4s, leaving 3 1/2″ of space between the studs for insulation.

In advanced framing, on the other hand, only a single top plate is used, studs are spaced 22 1/2″ apart (24″ O.C.), and metal “header hangers” are used instead of the jack studs.  On “gable end” walls, no headers are needed at all! (see below) “Ladder framing” is used to anchor interior walls and 2×6 lumber is used, leaving 5 1/2″ of space for insulation (obviously that’s the part of the wall that looks like a ladder in the pic)

The advanced framing system is cheaper because it uses 5% to 10% less lumber, and it is faster because it uses 30% fewer boards (although they are a bit bigger and heavier). More importantly, every single year more money is saved on energy costs because over 60% more insulation can be filled in.

This is a gable end wall, meaning it will extend all the way to the peak of the roof without slanting. Because of this, you can see I don’t have to use headers above the windows. (And yes, that is just a very light dusting of snow)

Okay, so what’s the catch?  If advanced framing was added to the building code over 40 years ago, is cheaper and faster, and reduces the energy bill every single month, then why isn’t it standard operating procedure for builders?  How could I possibly be telling you that most builders don’t even know about it?  While I could devote several pages answering that very question, I’ll do my best to sum it up quickly.  Building a house is difficult.  There are very few people who have the knowledge to do it all themselves and I may very well fall flat on my face in trying.  For me, that challenge is exciting, even if it is frustrating at times.  Because of this fact, the vast majority of houses are built by a massive team of “contractors” that under normal circumstances communicate very little with each other, if at all.  These tradesman are managed by a “general contractor” who uses building plans that were probably drawn up by an architect and edited by an engineer.  Although I was able to sum up the advanced framing techniques in a couple sentences, the small changes affect every single one of these workers.

Image result for photo of advanced framing vs traditional

The architect and the engineer must design the house from the very beginning so the floor joists and studs stack up within an inch of each stud (see pic above)  This puts a sort of limiting factor on the architect in regards to wall lengths and window placements that many are resistant to.  Next, the general contractor must be open to training the contractors under him because many of them will be unaccustomed to the framing.  The framing crew will be working with a different length of wood due to the single top plate, and have to frame completely differently than they are used to.  The electrician has fewer studs to attach electrical boxes to.  The drywall crew has fewer studs to nail the drywall to and may have to hang it differently.  The small changes ripple right on down the line and affect every single person that works on the house.  As contractors are paid by the job and not by the hour, they aren’t too keen on taking time to learn this new technique.  The fewer that learn it, the fewer that are available to teach it, and the cycle continues…

As I’m building solo, I have none of these issues.  I designed the house myself from the very beginning with advanced framing in mind.  Thanks to my mentor, who introduced me to advanced framing, I’ve never built any other way.  I saved money on lumber and nails.  I saved time with fewer studs to nail together.  I saved trees because of using less lumber (I’ll be using dense packed cellulose in the spaces where the studs would have been which is made of mostly recycled newspaper and denim).  I will save money on my energy bill each month (or be able to use a smaller solar array).  I even save time building because with the larger spacing between studs I can jump in an out of the house anywhere instead of using a doorway.  If you really want to save sustainably, advanced framing is the way to go.

 

Step 4b – Inside the Tank!

Today I almost completed the septic install but am waiting on a couple more parts.  For the second time already in my build I underestimated the amount of wire I needed and now I’m stuck with a couple pieces that are too short and need to return to the electrical store to get longer pieces.  An important part of working solo is knowing where your deficiencies are and I tend to cut things just a little too close due to not wanting to waste anything.  With wire, hopefully this will be the last time I underestimate the length I need!

I began the day by running 1.5″ PVC from the tank to the drain field.  I learned a lot from the mistakes I made running electrical conduit since the white PVC for the septic is assembled and glued the same way as the grey PVC for the electrical.  The end result was a well planned and perfectly aligned run.  The next step was attaching the float switches inside the pump chamber of the septic tank.  There are three floats that will work together to operate the pump.  The float switches are bell shaped plastic parts attached to low voltage cords.  They are very simple but ingeniously designed.  When the water is low, gravity pulls the float down so the heavier bell end is down.  When the water level raises, the bell end floats upward, causing a sliding metal part inside the float to meet another metal part in the middle and complete the circuit.  The design was very specific on the placement of the floats on the PVC pole.

You can’t see them very well in the pic at the top of the page, but if you follow the white PVC pole that extends from the top of the tank down to the bottom on the right side of the pic, you will see three black objects attached to the pole at different heights.  The first float was to be placed 13 inches from the bottom of the tank.  This switch controls the ‘redundant off’ function in the control panel.  Basically it ensures that the pump continues to run until the effluent level is low enough to lower the float.  Without it, the pump would wear out a lot quicker because it would run so often.  Imagine if you took out the garbage to the street every time you had a piece of trash!  It’s much more efficient to have a small container and only empty it when the container is full.

The second float is placed 20 inches from the bottom of the tank.  Once the effluent level is high enough to raise this float, the pump activates and continues to run until the “redundant off” float is lowered.  The third float is the high level switch, and is placed 35 inches from the bottom of the tank.  This activates an alarm and a siren if the float is raised, and will allow me sufficient time to figure out what is wrong and fix it before the effluent level gets so high that the tank is full.  As you can see in the photo, the floats have cords that I coiled up and then ran into a junction box on the left side of the pic.  Inside the box, I spliced the wires with another set of wires coming from the control panel.  By NEC code, you must use special silicon wire nuts to splice them to protect against the corrosive sewer gases that will soon occupy the tank (this is most likely overkill because the junction box is air and watertight.  You can also see in the pic the green pump at the very bottom of the tank and the white rope that I can use to pull it up if I ever need to perform maintenance on it (much better than diving in)

You can see how I’ve mounted the control panel on a 2×6 pressure treated post and run wires through 3/4″ conduit from the panel down towards the pump chamber riser.  Tomorrow I will buy a rubber grommet to make a seal as I drill a hole through the side of the riser and run the conduit into the junction box.  The last step will be running some 12/2 UF cable from my temporary power pole underground to the control panel.  If you look carefully you can see the 1.25″ connector at the bottom of the control panel where another conduit will run into the panel with power.

The other part I will get tomorrow is the flexible hose assembly that will connect the pump to the 1.5″ PVC I talked about in the beginning of this post.  Once that is hooked up it’s just a matter of filling the tank with water and checking to ensure everything is working properly.  In 4 days, the inspector will come and check for himself that everything is functioning properly and then I will be able to connect my trailer sewer to the septic inlet and start using it!  The backhoe operator will return and cover everything back up with dirt so the tops of the inspection ports are just barely visible.

Step 3a – Temp Power Pit and Utility Trench

I’m highly motivated to start getting some utilities going on the lot since I am currently living without electricity, water, and sewer (septic)!  The first one to knock out was the water, which involved digging down next to the meter box to expose the stub and connecting my RV hose.  I will be installing a hose bibb and rerouting the water line with PEX piping in the near future, but until I get electricity going it simply isn’t a priority.  As I laid out in the previous post, the first part of the temporary power installation involved digging a pit to the specificiations laid out by the power company.  

Here you can see how I’ve done just that, and if you look closely right in the center of the photo you can see some dirt above the pit that is slightly darker where I hammered in a 10 foot copper grounding rod.  A 4’x4’x26″ pit didn’t seem like a lot to dig but when you have to tackle a thicket of blackberry vines and a rock quarry before you even get to the dirt it was quite the chore.  That having said, there is something about working on your own land that can make even the most labor intensive or menial task highly enjoyable and rewarding.  In addition to the pit, I dug an 18″ deep utility trench from the power pole to a smaller pole near my trailer.  This way, I won’t have long extension cords running everywhere.
Once the digging was complete, I assembled the two poles and attached the conduit.  It took a decent amount of research to figure out exactly what kind of conduit to use and what method to connect it all.  I’ve spent months researching the IRC (residential building code), but the NEC (national electric code) is an entirely different animal.  It took an extra week of mistakes and learning and setbacks, but now I have a system set up that will serve my purposes and (hopefully) pass inspection whenever it is the inspector decides to get out here.  For those interested in the specs, I have 2 #2 Al ORD conductors running across the ground from the stubout to the pole (they will be buried) for the hots and 1 #3 Al for the neutral.  These run up 2″ conduit (required to have an ‘end bell’ piece on the end, through an offset and into the bottom of the 100 amp meter socket.  I had to use the offsets because conduit isn’t very malleable and I had to get around the panel.  Alternatively, I could have used an L shaped piece of conduit and attached to the side of the meter base but I think my way looks better.  On the other side of the meter socket I have #2 Al SE cable through more 2″ conduit running down to the service panel.  I have a 30 amp single pole breaker for the trailer, a 20 and a 15 amp both to be used for the future septic system, a 20 amp for the outlets for tools, and a 15 amp to be used in the future for interior lighting.  I’m running UF cable (#10 for the 30 amp, #12 for the 20’s, #14 for the 15) from the breakers down 1.25″ conduit back to the pit and then it picks back up in 2″ conduit in the trench.  The reason for the oversized conduit is so I can run the main service cables through it when I connect permanent service.  I ran the 2″ conduit up near the trailer where I returned to 1.25″ and ran it up a smaller 4×4 post into a 4x4x2 junction box.  From there it branches off into 2 different directions.  One branch continues up the post to the 30 amp trailer outlet.  The other makes a turn around the post and down another side to the outlets I will use to power my tools. The septic wiring will be completed when I install the system in the next week or two.  The last thing I need to do now is wire the UF cable to the breakers and outlets and then I’ll be ready for an inspection!

Step 1 – Buy Land

Where 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 www.mrmoneymustache.com 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.