Wednesday, August 10, 2005

And So it Begins Part II, the background

(this is a view from where I'm going to put my cabin...after I build my house!)

Now that I have gotten some much-deserved sleep (*yawn*), I am ready to continue:

It’s been more that 17 years since I have been to that old ranch. I have 3 young children, a wonderful wife, a dog and a cat. This year we found a property that is pretty close to being the ranch.

It’s 20 Acres in the mountains, in a group association that owns over 2000 acres and over 6000 more open to use by members on lease for the working cattle ranch operation. It’s surrounded by National Forest land, so development won’t encroach on it, ever. There are 10 cabins on the property, and we get 2 weeks a year in one. This means I don’t have to rush to build a cabin to enjoy the ranch, but believe me, it’s in the plan. After staying in a cabin for a week, we fell in love with it. No river runs thru it, but there are ponds and streams. Now, as much as I would love to live there year round, this is strictly recreational property for the time being, as it’s far too remote for me to commute to a job with the skills I have today and it’s not too accessible without an ATV or snowmobile in the deep of winter. Any power on the ranch would have to be generated locally, and cell phones don’t work without a major house-mounted antenna. It’s also a bit too remote for a young family with active kids that want to be involved in soccer, T-ball, gymnastics, karate, and so on.

So… now that we found “the place” to escape to, we need to move a little closer to it so we can visit more than once or twice a year. So, off to find a lot to build in a nearby area.

And so it begins...

After reading so many housebuilding journals and blogs out there that have inspired me to take on the task of building my own home, I finally decided I would do one myself.
A little background:
From the time I was an infant to about age 15, my family had a part ownership in large ranch in central CA as a vacation place. We'd go there every year for a few weeks in the summer to relax and have fun swimming, fishing, hunting, hiking, relaxing, catching frogs and dragonflies, making camp fires, and making some of the best memories I have as a kid.
A small river ran through it, and you had to drive through the river to get to the ranch houses. (some years this was an interesting adventure when the water got deeper than the built-up crossing) The river was dammed up in one place, which provided a fantastic swimming area. There were several old ranch houses, and we usually stayed in the large main house, an old thick-walled adobe home with an enormous screened-in covered porch that ran the length of the house. (it was also the most used "room"!) There were several bedrooms, a bathroom with a huge cast iron clawfoot tub, a large galley kitchen (with three old Servel propane refrigerators just outside in the screened-in covered entry), and even an outdoor canning kitchen, which my dad often used to work on a deer he'd shot if he was able.
There was no electricity, except when we fired up the old mind-numbingly loud diesel generator down the way. The house was wired with the old turn and "SNAP!" knobs for switches. Often, there were various cattle and horses wandering the pasture. Some years there were so many cows it was an adventure to avoid the cow pies that littered the roads.
This place deeply influenced my dream home ideas and also what recreation means to me.
More tomorrow. It's time to go to bed.

FirstDay Cottages

Above are some example Pictures of FirstDay homes.
Knowing I want to build my own home, but not knowing how I would do it, I started DVR recording some homebuilding show series on DIY network. One show was on Post and Beam homes. These are houses that are framed out with beautiful large timbers, and then the walls are in-filled with SIPs or some other insulated wall method, like straw bale. They can have an interior look of log homes (which I have always thought of as gorgeous), but are much more energy efficent and have less maintenance issues. So I started looking into Post and Beam homes, but found all the kits available to be very expensive. While cruising the OwnerBuilderBook forums, I saw some posts about FirstDay cottages. These are kit homes designed by David Howard, an architect that originally designed multi-million dollar residences, but wanted to create a system for owner builders to create an affordable, quality home that is possible to build themselves. These are Post and Beam-like, energy-efficient, all wood (no sheetrock or plywood) kits that are designed specifically for the owner-builder. They have a Saltbox style kits that can be as big as 1680 square feet and built on top of a basement for a total of 2720 square feet of living space! And for only $47,000! (I have since determined that to completely build a FirstDay you would need to figure about double the price of the kit to complete it, since you need a foundation, appliances, electrical, plumbing, fixtures and countertops. But even so- a 2720 sq. foot home for less than $100000!) After looking at the web site and the several FirstDay blogs by successful owner-builders, I was impressed. I quickly ordered their information kit. After reading all this, my mind still was full of questions. I called over and talked with David Howard. What a friendly and knowledgeable guy! We talked for almost an hour about FirstDay. I was amazed that he, probably a very busy professional and president of the company, would spend so much time talking with me. Talk about customer service! Try getting that kind of response at other places! I told him I wanted to be able to see a FirstDay before I attempt to figure out how to build one. There were only a few FirstDays out on the west coast, and none close to a major airport, so he suggested I fly out to FirstDay, and they would put me up and give me a tour! I told him I would have to check with my wife, but I was certainly interested. So now I've got to figure out when I can can take a little flight to New England....

Home Features

Here's some features that are interesting to me that I will attempt to incorporate into my new home...
  • passive solar and environmental design
  • solar photovoltaic electric power systems, including exceptionally low-cost owner installed systems
  • solar water heating
  • solar water distillation system, direct to the tap
  • solar hot water instant demand systems
  • hydronic radiant floor heating
  • energy efficient appliances, lighting and other energy efficiency measures
  • high energy efficiency windows and doors
  • high efficiency heating and cooling equipment systems and strategies
  • water efficiency and conservation
  • water harvesting
  • graywater systems
  • waterless urinals
  • long lasting no-maintenance metal roofs
  • radiant barriers
  • superinsulated ceilings
  • blown cellulose insulation
  • superinsulated walls
  • internal mass walls
  • colored concrete, brick paver, adobe and hand hewn stone paver floors
  • recycled materials
  • small is beautiful - and more cost-effective
  • universal and lifetime design, aging in place
  • accessibility, visitability and wheelchair friendly measures
  • high tech electronic and communications systems
  • healthy home, low allergen, clean air strategies
  • non-toxic, low VOC materials
  • low water use oasis garden
  • solar pool heating (a BIG money saver)
  • solar cooking
I originally wanted to have a rammed earth house built where the builder would do the walls, the roof, and foundation, and I would do all the finish work. It would incorporate many features of an earthship. The problem was that I couldn’t get any architects to talk to me about this type of house because they seem to be only interested in building huge, expensive homes for the super-rich. I know they can be done inexpensively, because Habitat for Humanity built several in Tuscon.
So, a rammed earth house is out for now, but may be in my future.

Home Dreamin'

We want to build our own home. Building our own home would allow us to incorporate several energy-efficient and sustainable features that would otherwise be impossible with a developer built stick-frame and stucco McMansion clone home. It will also allow us to save money on the construction of my home, which will make it a smaller mortgage to pay off. One of my inspirations for this idea came from reading several books, like Rob Roy’s “Mortgage Free!”, Smith’s “Owner Builder Book” and their excellent Owner Builder forum and web site, and so on. Before happening upon this stuff, I didn’t think it was possible for a guy like to me to do it. The biggest boon to my research into energy-efficient, self-sufficient homes and homebuilding (besides the Internet, of course) was Bookman’s Used books, a local used-book megastore. I have been able to purchase two bookshelves full of books on homesteading, homebuilding, pioneer skills, water systems, solar power, animals, and so on for pennies on the dollar that I wouldn’t have otherwise been able to own if it weren’t for Bookman’s.

One book that really got me thinking about housing self-sufficiency is the Earthship series by Michael Reynolds. These books are filled with ideas about how to live lighter on the earth, even if you don’t build an earthship of your own. We even went up to Taos, New Mexico last year for part of our vacation to take a tour of an earthship and looked around at several examples of different earthships. Earthships, if you don’t know, are homes with walls made of tires filled with compacted earth and banked into the earth. Ok, you say, radials aren’t very attractive! Well, you won’t see any tires on a completed earthship. They are all plastered over. The closest comparison I have seen is thick adobe walls, except the “bricks” are tires. They are totally self-sufficient, running on solar and wind power, heating and with the sun and keeping cool with the massive walls solar design, collecting, storing and purifying rainwater for drinking, and processing it’s own waste. A finished earthship is a very beautiful and comforting structure. One day I may build a home like it. For more information about Earthships, go here.

The Land Search

Real estate is booming right now, so I think we can eventually (probably late next year) sell the house we are in for enough to pay off most of our debts (including the ranch land), and have a nice “grubstake” to get started on a new home. Once we are done with building our primary home, I can use what I've learned to build a small cabin on the ranch property.
I have been planning a move to a few acres of land and building a house for 5 years now, and hopefully we will be able to do it.

We want to have enough land in a rural area to experiment with some small steps to self-sufficiency with a little “homesteading”. We are also concerned about the quality of the food we eat, where we get it from, and what’s going to happen if there is an emergency that may temporarily or permanently close the food stores. This means we’d like to do a little small-scale farming, like raise a few chickens, a couple goats, have a sizeable garden, and so on. It’s not something you can do when you neighbor’s house is 5 feet from your window.