Thursday, June 17, 2010

Raised bed hoops and row covers

This summer I was determined to have a more successful garden than last summer.  I realized that one of my problems is that my garden is very exposed to the wind and weather.  During afternoon summer thunderstorms my plants get beat up pretty bad especially if it hails.  I decided to try and make some hoops and purchase some row cover fabric.  I ordered Agribon - 19, 83" x 50' from Johnny's Selected seeds .  From the little bit of research I did I decided to use 1/2" conduit to make the hoops.  It was surprisingly cheap at $2.00 for 10' of conduit.  PVC was about $1.50.  The problem was bending the conduit to the shape of my raised beds.  Johnny's also sells a tubing bender but it was a little bit expensive and what would I do with it after I was done?  I decided to try my hand at bending them myself. Here is the video I created to show how I did it.

So far the hoops and covers are working great.  We have had a number of storms come though which included some hail and the fabric has held up great.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Buying Bare Land

I guess I should have started with this post but recent events have caused me to reevaluate how to assess bare land.

Who are your neighbors?  Neighbors can be a great assess or liability.  Before you buy a piece of land go and talk to the neighbors.  This will serve two purposes.  One is to get a read on who your neighbors are going to be and to get a little history on the land.  I don't want to sound like a snob but your neighbors can have a huge impact on the enjoyment of your property.  Loud music, burning leaves, barking dogs, guest at all hours of the nights, I am sure you have dealt with some of this.  They can also tell you a lot about the land.  After we bought our property we learned from the neighbors that our lot had been created by a bankruptcy court splitting a bigger lot and that the neighbors were told that this area would never be built on.  Luckily our neighbors were nice and didn't mind that we were going to be building on it.

Easements:  If you are looking at a piece of land with easements on it make sure you read them carefully.  We have a road easement on the south side of our property.  We own from the middle of the road north.  There is a 30 foot easement from the center of the road onto our property for the neighbors that live behind us.  This didn't seem like that big of a deal since it is a single lane road that is probably about 10 feet wide.  The issue came this spring when I put some rocks lining part of the road to keep people from driving into the grass and causing weeds to invade.  I was confronted by a neighbor saying I was blocking the easement because they have 30 feet of access on my property even though there is no road there.  It seemed a little extreme to me but I called a friend of mine who was a lawyer and he said if they wanted to drive in the grass the law say they have 30 feet of my property to drive on.

Road maintenance:  If it is a private road it will need to be maintained.  How will it be maintained?  Is everyone supposed to pitch in and pay to fix the road?  That might work fine until someone says they can't afford to pay.  Then what?

Fences:  Know which property line fences you are responsible for maintaining.

Irrigation:  Learn the water right laws if you have any.  People get shot out West for water rights issues.

A little research beforehand can help you to avoid some rude awakenings later.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

LEED Certification

While researching building our house we ran across the US Green Building Council.  They certify projects as to how energy efficient they are and other criteria.  They take into account hundreds of factors and have developed a scoring guide to score the energy efficiency of a building.  To have a LEED certified house requires a good bit of work before your project has even started.  This does not mean that you should just ignore their resources.  Here is the link to the pdf scoring guide.  It is 140 pages long and is very detailed and includes many formulas and specifications.  Don't be overwhelmed by all the technical talk just browse through all the categories and you will learn a lot about what can go into a house.  You can even score your own project.

LEED Scoring Guide

ICF - insulated concrete forms

 We chose to use ICF's for the foundation of the house.  Ours I believe are from Eco-block.  The concrete contractor had used them before and was comfortable with using them.  The IFC's cost a bit more but it  gave us the advantage of being quicker to setup and it would insulate the slab which would help with the radiant floor.  It also has the added benefit of protecting from frost heave.

Frost Protected Shallow foundations

If you are thinking of using ICF's I would recommend looking into a way to protect the foam that is above grade.  It needs to be protected from the sun and also from sharp objects and abuse.  Ours ended up being covered with a latex type of plaster.

I was driving by a strip mall under construction and noticed that there was a crew applying a plaster over the rigid foam insulation.  I stopped by and talked to the owner of the plaster company and talked to him about what I needed to cover my ICF's.  After talking to him he convinced me that it would be worth my money to have two of his guys come and do it for me.  It was a small job that would require special scratch coats and final coats.  He came and looked at my foundation later in the day and said they could do it in two mornings, one for the scratch coat and one for the finish.  For a couple hundred bucks it looked really good and has held up perfectly.  I regret that I can not tell you the name of the product use.

The other issue that we encounter was how to use the ICF's and pour a slab floor.  What we came up with was to break the Styrofoam on the inside walls down about 4 inches and leave the outside Styrofoam at full height.  The wall would be poured flush with the lower inside wall.  Then the slab would be poured to the outside  foam.

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Designing our house

     We started designing our house during the winter of 2006 right after we bought our property.  I spent hours a day on the internet learning everything I could about house design.  I also checked out almost every house design book in the Montana library system.  I also bought some design books from Amazon that were more contemporary.

Our favorite books:
The Not So Big house series by Sarah Susanka
The Barefoot Home: Dressed-Down Design for Casual Living
The Farmhouse: New Inspiration for the Classic American Home

The Owner-Built Home
    This book is from 1971.  My dad gave me his copy which he probably bought in the 70's.  It has a lot of interesting ideas and principles, like where to put windows for the best air flow.  The building technology mentioned in the book is old and alternative but it gives you some out of the box ideas.  It is selling used on Amazon for $.75 so I think that is a steal for the information in it.

After reading these book we agreed (and so did our budget) that our house should be small and simple.  We both grew up in houses that were less then 1600 sq. ft. and we each had siblings to share the house with.

We started with the shape of the house.  It is pretty much a rectangle (26 x 36) with a small 1ft pop out for the staircase. This would keep the cost of the foundation down as well as the cost of the house.  I read somewhere that each corner you add to your house costs you an extra $7,000.  I don't know if that number is true but it makes sense.  Also since we live in a heating climate you want a house that is closer to square to give you the most volume to surface area.  A long thin house has a lot of exterior walls compared volume.  This means you have a lot of heat loss through the walls.

A basement was out of the question because the ground here has huge rocks in it.  Hence the name Rocky Mountains.  A two story house requires half the roofing and half the foundation as a similar single story house.  Since we wanted to use SIP panels which are not the cheapest things we wanted to get the most square footage for the least amount of panels and two stories seemed like it would accomplish that.  We also liked the look of having an upstairs that has vaulted ceilings.  Our outside walls upstairs start at 4 ft tall and the go to 14 feet at the peak.  One of the advantages of building with SIPs is the lack of trusses.  Even our bathrooms are vaulted!

Upstairs there are 3 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms.  Downstairs is a half bath, kitchen, dining room and living room.

After we drew up plans that we liked on grid paper we showed them to an architect who just charged us to redraw them and to polish them up for us.  This is much cheaper than hiring an architect to design your house from scratch.  He also added the upstairs sky lights and an accent window in the kitchen.  Both of these additions were worth his costs.  I would recommend finding an architect who will redraw your hand drawn and scaled plans and charge you by the page.  Their professional eye could catch something that could cost you a lot of money down the road.

If you would like to draw your house in 3-D to see what it might look like I would recommend using Google sketchup  It is free and pretty easy to use.

The House

     We built our house over the summer of 2008.  Since my wife and I are both teachers we had all summer off to work on the house.  This was one of the reasons that we attempted to build our own house was because we knew we could be there everyday and put in a lot of sweat equity.
     Our house is located on 9 acres in the beautiful Bitterroot Valley of Montana.  We are located at about 4500 ft elevation and can get some pretty nasty weather.
     The house is two stories tall with a 26 ft x 36 ft foundation.  This makes the square footage about 1850 sq. ft.  (depending on how you calculate square footage.  Which is still a mystery to me.  Do you count stairs?  Do you count the outside wall measurements or the inside wall measurements.  When is the ceiling height too low to count as square footage.)  It is 3 bedrooms and 2.5 bath.  
     It cost us about 88 dollars a square foot to build.  ( which factors in what calculation do you use to calculate square footage and not including the cost for a well and septic which we were told does not go into the square footage cost) 
     The walls are 6' SIP panels and the roof is 10" SIP panels.  The roof is corrugated steel.  The siding is Hardi panels.  We have a radiant heat floor in the concrete slab on the first floor and electric wall heaters upstairs.  After the first winter in the house we decided to install a wood stove downstairs also.  
     That is the basic description of the house.  In upcoming posts I will go into more detail about many of these things.
     We love our house and would change very little if we could do it again.  But there are some things that I would change and some we just got lucky on.  Check back often as I discuss each of steps and products in building our house.

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Who am I?

I built my own house 2 years ago using SIP panels and a variety of other green building products.  I spent many years researching and reading about the latest materials and techniques for building green.  I am very grateful to all the people on the web who have posted articles, blogs, websites and ideas for the rest of us to learn from.

Now that I have lived in my house for close to two years and have had a chance to experience some of the technologies first hand I thought I would write a blog about some of the different things that have worked, not worked and worked better than I first thought.  Many websites show people's building ideas or the building in the process but few talk about their projects years after they have completed them.

I am not an architect, contractor or expert.  I am a high school science teacher.  This website is not intended to be a technical manual of how to accomplish these ideas.  It is just my ideas that I came to after years of research.  If you have a better idea please post.  Thanks for stopping by.