Building the Castle – Part 1, by Jake R.

This two-part article describes some TEOTWAWKI considerations for home building and long-term maintenance.

Have you ever daydreamed about building the perfect home for the end of the world as we know it? If you’re like me, you may have caught yourself daydreaming about various configurations and options you would like to have on your home to help you survive with better security and better comfort. I would like to say that there is a perfect home configuration out there for everyone but that just wouldn’t be true. When building a home, you must take multiple things into consideration including geographical location, soil types, legal considerations and various other hurdles that may be encountered along the way.

With that being said, let’s go over some of the options out there along with some of their pros and cons:

Foundations
Slab Foundation

Slab foundations are essentially concrete slabs that rest directly on the ground. These types of foundations are reinforced with metal components that add strength to the foundation itself and are designed to last for the life of the home.

Pros

Low Maintenance – There just a lot of maintenance requirements with this type of foundation. The biggest concern is the level of moisture around the foundation walls. High or low moisture content can cause movement but can be prevented with proper drainage when it rains and a watering program for when it’s extremely dry.

No need for additional flooring – Flooring is optional with slabs. More and more people are going with a concrete stain instead of installing flooring. This may save you some money down the road and is easy to keep clean.

No Wood Rot – As with pier and beam and even some basement foundations, you will eventually experience water damage and may even have to replace some of the wood in these areas over time. When the sawmills no longer work, this is one less thing you’ll have to be concerned about.

Cheaper to Install – Slab foundations are typically cheaper than basements and pier and beam foundations. This should free up some extra cash for that solar well pump you’ve been looking at.

Cons

Expensive to Repair – When a concrete slab does fail, its usually costly to repair it. Usually, this requires cutting holes in various locations around the home to install piers. Another downside to this is, it’s usually not a DIY project and will likely require the skills and tools of a trained professional. In the event of TEOTWAWKI, you may find that you are not able to make the needed repairs.

More susceptible to flooding – Concrete slabs usually sit lower to the ground than pier and beam foundations. This may increase the risk of flood damage if your house is in a low-lying area or if your grading and drainage isn’t performing well. Once a home has flooded, you can easily start to see mold growth. If mold takes over the home, you may be forced to find shelter elsewhere.

Concealed Plumbing – You won’t be able to look at your drain plumbing with this type of foundation. This means that if there is a leak, you usually won’t be able to see it until it shows up somewhere else, quite possibly in the form of foundation movement. This may not apply to you in a SHTF situation, but it should still be considered.

Pier and Beam Foundations

Pier and beam foundations are installed in a way that leaves a gap under the flooring of the home. This unfinished area is called the crawl space and is usually 16 to 36 inches in height leaving you just enough room to crawl around underneath it.

Pros

Easier to Repair – Pier and beam foundations are usually easier to repair compared to slabs. This may even be a DIY project depending on your level of knowledge and skill along with the appropriate tools so when you notice that the small wall crack is slowly getting bigger, you can take action and correct it before it gets worse.

You can inspect the plumbing – Every now and then, you can peek under the home to look for termites or water leaks. You’ll also find that the occasional plumbing leak will be significantly easier to repair compared to a slab foundation.

Storage – It’s not ideal to store unprotected items in the crawl space of your home but there is nothing wrong with having a waterproof cache in there.

Cons

Price – As mentioned before, this style of setup may cost you a little extra.

Potential for Wood Damage – When water leaks occur around wood, you’re likely to find wood rot at some point. Repairing this in a SHTF scenario may prove to be difficult if you’re unable to find the appropriate materials.

Maintenance – Pier and beam foundations may require more upkeep than slabs and sometimes even basements. From ventilation of the crawl space to preventing insulation damage at the subfloor, be prepared to spend some of your time on preventative maintenance.

Basement Foundations

Basement foundations consist of another level underground beneath the home. These can be finished areas meaning that it may contain a spare bedroom or living room, or they can be unfinished which means that its essentially a tall crawl space.

Pros

Extra Space – Having a basement opens extra space for you even if it’s not a finished basement. Having the furnace and water heater in the basement will keep you from using up areas for these in your main floor plan.

Built in Shelter – If you’re under attack, you will have the option to get into the basement where bullets will have a hard time penetrating since its underground. This may give you enough time to pull a plan of action together and survive the situation.

Climate Control – Buried basements are known to be cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. This may have a huge impact on your decision of a foundation type depending on your region.

Cons

Cost – Basements are usually more expensive to install than slabs or pier and beam foundations. Whether or not this impacts your decision on them will be up to you and your financial situation but keep this in mind.

Flooding – Since basements are installed underground, the potential for flooding is common and should be considered. Usually, this is prevented with a sump pump that pumps any additional water out and away from the home. If the power goes out, this pump will not work, and you may find yourself in a bad situation.

Repairs – Repairing a basement foundation if it fails is similar to repairing a slab. It will usually take a professional and a significant amount of money to get it back in good condition. This will likely not be a DIY project.

Roofs

The configurations and styles and materials for roofs are abundant and you’ll want to take into consideration the advantages and disadvantages to your options. The roof to a home usually takes all the brunt that Mother Nature has to offer. Since the materials for roofing are so vast, we will be going over the top two, shingles and metal.

Shingles

Shingles are small tabs that are installed by overlapping materials to help shed water away from the building materials of the home. These can be made of various materials including asphalt, wood, or fiberglass.

Pros

Cost – Compared to metal roofs, shingles are cheaper to install and may even be easier depending on the configuration of your roof.

Easier to Repair – If you have a tree fall onto your roof and it damages a few shingles, all you have to do is replace the damaged areas and continue on about your day where with metal roofing, you’re going to have to replace the entire sheet.

Easy to stockpile extra materials – You’ll be able to stockpile spare shingles in a relatively small amount of space. These come in bundles and can be stacked in a corner somewhere until needed.

Cons

More susceptible to hail damage – Although all types of roofing can be damaged by hail, shingles seem to take it the hardest. Hail breaks apart the granules and can cause early deterioration of the materials.

Relatively Short Lifespan – Shingles usually have a lifespan of 10-30 years depending on the type of shingle and once these begin to fail and leak, your problems can grow rapidly.

More susceptible to wind damage – Wind is not a roof friend and this is especially true with shingles. You may find missing or damaged shingles after a bad wind storm where metal could have otherwise held tightly in place.

Metal Roofs

Metal roofs are made up sheets of metal and usually screwed to the roof decking using special screws that have small rubber gaskets seated near the head of the screw to seal the roof once the screws are put in to place. These types of roofs can come in a multitude of colors.

Pros

Lifespan – Metal roofs have an average of 40 years or more giving you peace of mind for an extended duration.

Fire Safety – Metal roofs cannot catch fire from wildfire or chimney embers landing on it. Although damage to the paint may still occur, you won’t have to worry as much about that one stray ember.

Energy Efficiency – Metal roofs reflect heat well and in the summer months, may keep your home cooler. This can save you money on your air conditioning bill and could reduce the demand of your solar setup if you have one installed.

Cons

Cost – Metal roofs are typically more expensive than shingles. The cost difference could be significant depending on the layout of your roof and may affect your decision based on finances.

Stockpiling – Metal roof panels can be well over twenty feet long so finding a dry location that’s out of the elements to store these spare panels may be difficult.

Difficult to repair – When a metal roof panel takes damage, you’ll likely have to replace the entire panel to appropriately fix it. This means that to repair a two-inch hole, you’ll have to replace the twenty-foot panel. These panels can also be heavy and quite difficult to install.

Walls

The walls to your home can be another major decision to make in the home building process and just like before, you can have quite a few options. We will look at three of the most commonly seen materials including brick/stone facade, vinyl/wood/hardy siding and metal.

Brick/Stone Facade

Brick and Stone Facade walls are common in today’s construction industry. It’s important to understand that the brick and stone that you see usually do not support any weight of the home. Brick and Stone are known to be porous and allow water to pass through them. A house wrap is usually installed behind the facade to protect the building materials.

Pros

Durable Material – Brick and Stone are durable materials and have a long life span with minimal maintenance. These walls may also offer a small amount of ballistic protection but don’t expect them to last long to gunfire.

Fire Safety – Brick and stone offer fire protection to the home as well meaning that you will be protected against a small grassfire better than you would be with vinyl or wood siding.

Energy Efficiency – Brick and Stone facade offer a small amount of extra energy efficiency by slowing the conduction of heat through the walls. This may help in keeping your home warmer in the winters with just your fireplace going.

Cons

Cost – Bricks are expensive along with the labor to install them. Just like anything else, you may not put too much concern into the cost if it’s what you really desire.

Color – The color of bricks is fairly limited so if your house is out in the woods and you want it to blend in with your surroundings, you may not be able to find a color that suits you. Brick can be painted but this task can prove to be extremely difficult depending on the type of brick.

Weather Considerations – If you live in a region with extreme changes in temperatures, keep in mind that these changes can cause bricks to spall. Spalling most commonly occurs when moisture freezes inside the bricks themselves and causes them to break apart. Repairing these can be difficult, especially if there are no more bricks of that type being produced.

Siding

Siding comes in multiple forms including wood, hardy board, vinyl and aluminum. Each of these materials by themselves have pros and cons but we are going to try and cover them all in one category. Siding is installed by overlapping materials much like a shingled roof. This allows moisture to shed from the house and protects the building materials underneath.

Pros

Cost – Siding is cheaper than most other options and can be installed relatively fast. This keeps the labor costs down as well.

Stockpiling – You may be able to order some extra siding to set back in the event that some of the siding on your house gets damaged. With the low cost and easy installation, you can usually do this yourself and save some money or in the event of a SHTF scenario, save your home from water damage.

Color – If you want your home to blend into its surroundings, then this may be the stuff for you. It can usually be painted with a good exterior paint allowing you to possibly camouflage your home.

Cons

Damages Easier – Siding does not usually hold up well to damage and may need to be replaced more frequently. This may be a pain but at least the installation is fairly simple.

Not Fire Resistant – These materials usually do not hold up well to the occasional grass fire so in the event the fire department no longer exists, you may find that keeping this material on your home can be risky.

Paint Dependent – Wood siding will usually need to be painted from time to time to help protect against the weather. If this goes for an extended time without paint, wood rot can set in and cause you a ton of headaches.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in part 2.)




22 Comments

  1. Looking forward to the rest of the article… great subject!
    Regarding siding choices- Cementous siding is a great option as it is fire resistant and easy to install. It is more stable than wood siding, so it holds paint better. It also doesn’t rattle in the wind like vinyl siding can do at times.
    With a slab foundation, consider running heating tubing in the slab when pouring in order to later add a low-cost wood fired or solar water heating system to it.

  2. Keep in mind when considering a slab foundation that a footer is still required at any load bearing walls. Whether trench footer, block, thickened slab, ICFs, or other; a footer is required for structural assemblies. The slab itself is a floor not a foundation. It’s also a good idea to add a vapor barrier and rigid insulation under the slab before pouring.

  3. Lots of good points to consider when building your castle. We chose a full daylight basement due to the lay of our property and made the walls of foam block cement forms. We are in an area where fire is a concern so we did a metal roof and Hardie cement siding.
    There are so many things to consider when building,take your time in the planning stages. Cost is always an issue , but so are the end results as well and you will have your home a long time .

  4. I was disappointed to not see cement block as a wall choice. I prefer it due to potential for high winds where I live. Also would have liked to see comments regarding radiation penetration of different materials.

  5. Your plumbing on a fixed slab can be accessed by the the use of a chase which is essentially a trench that is incorporated into the floor itself. A chase is usually 2-3 ft wide to allow a slender plumber to access pipes for repair. The use of a chase is fairly standard in multi-storied structures, apartments etc. The structure is designed to accomadate the use of a chase. Masonry block called CMUs in the trade bear loads very well. I can vouch for a 12 inch concrete block structure that is reinforced with i/2 inch rebar and poured concrete every 2 ft. and at corners. Pilasters projecting 8 inches every 8 ft and filled wit concrete make for an awesome structure. This of course calls for a stout footing and this will add to your cost. Cut down on that by doing the footer yourself, that is within the skill set of most people who can read and write. Hire a good bricklayer who doesn’t drink to build your corners and then fill in the rest yourself. By the time you are finished you should be qualified as an apprentice mason at the very least. Now ask yourself which will bear up best in an area with a lot of seismic activity. My nod there goes to concrete well reinforced. I worked in masonry and concrete for 30 some years, so i know enough to get you into trouble. i know how to get out of trouble as well.

    1. In earthquake zones “pour-in-place” is a great substitute for c.m.u. even if it’s only a half height of the wall set up. If proper hardware and techniques are used it is insanely durable. It also provides for a completely seamless and re-enforced footer slab wall section. Depending on thickness of wall 5\8 would be best rebar to choose from. Also using a “water barrier” type coating would improve the longevity of the cement (best to use a one step product rather than the two step with cloth ones for exterior)

      Also it should be noted to never skip or skrimp on the hardware (think Simpson products) if your goal is long term integrity.

  6. On the slab foundation being the floor of the house, I guess the writer has not spent a lot of time on slab style floors. If you don’t have it yet get ready for Plantar Fasciitis. Also slab floors are colder in the winter. I am speaking from experience.

  7. Thank you J.m.z.b.
    5/8″ rebar is of course much better than 1/2″. That is what I used some 10 years ago when I built my house and I had forgotten that. By the way with a poured in place structure you will have the added expense of forms. A newer product that I have seen is a series of styrofoam forms that interlock and contain hangers to suspend 2 runs of rebar throughout the wall. An added bonus is the styrofoam ( at least on the exterior side)) can be left in place and stuccoed or sealed and will thus boost your R-factor. I can attest to the fact that a masonry structure is quieter than a conventional house. Also masonry besides adding strength can provide a good heat sink if you decide to go with passive solar. Lastly I forgot to mention that poured in place concrete wall WILL provide an adequate ballistic barrier (within reason) Some things to think on.

  8. Iraude,
    Funny you should mention that. I have had Plantar Faciitis. Never considered what caused it for a moment. Slab floors are cold and do take a while to come up to a comfortable temp. Radiant hydronic heating (pex pipe within the slab) can overcome this and is an economical alternative.

  9. Although a basement might be more expensive than other foundation methods in the long run it is very cost effective. Most municipalities do NOT tax the square footage of the basement (there are some exceptions) so it becomes very cheap and accessible storage space. Imagine how much you would pay to rent the same square footage. It provides a very good protection factor against radiation as well.

  10. Jake ,,,,something to think about ,, as we get older a fall on a slab can be a life changer. A post and beam with a suspended wood floor is much better for us older folks.
    A metal roof with a hole is easy fixed with a short patch piece ,
    Again Hardie siding is fire proof , you might have to renail it but if anything will hold a fire it will ,and it will slow up a bullet from most hand guns ,and bugs will leave it alone
    All of the above is personal experience,

  11. Concrete foundations do in fact move as the author has suggested. He explained that moisture changes in the soil causes movement which is correct. However different types of soil is more or less affected by moisture changes. A sandy loam tends to be more stable while a dense gummy clay will move when it gets dry and then wet. When clay gets wet it swells and when it gets dry it shrinks. That is what causes a foundation to move. If you are going to build on pure clay there are several things you can do which MAY save you problems years down the line. One thing you can do is build a dirt pad out of a proper type of dirt that tends to be stable. In my area ( Central Oklahoma ) we call that type of dirt RED SELECT and it is basically speaking a blend of clay and sand. The clay element allows for a good compaction and the sand element resists movement with moisture changes. This type of dirt tends to be stable and is the choice dirt for building pads. When building a dirt pad it is important to make sure the dirt isn’t too wet or too dry and of course try to get a good compaction.
    Another thing to consider is to make sure the bottom of your foundation is lower than your local freeze line. In my area it never freezes below ten inches but the standard depth of foundation is 18″. I agree with that depth for two reasons: at 18″ the soil tends to be more “moisture stable” than it would be at ten inches and the other reason that an 18″ depth foundation is good is because a full 18″ inch depth is strong and will hold up to different destructive variables. There’s much more to consider including reinforcement ( HARDWARE is not the correct terminology ), proper slump and concrete breaking strength but the few things I’ve mentioned are a good start when thinking about your foundation.
    One thing is for sure and that is concrete construction is done differently as you go from state to state. Different construction techniques are used depending on where you live in this nation and what I have just explained does work well in my part of the country but would probably never work in Alaska.

    1. I am guessing that is why many or most houses in OK do not have a basement?
      I always thought that to be odd considering it is in the middle of tornado alley.
      I am in Southern Kansas and would never suggest buying a house without a basement.

      The freeze depth is only 18″ for Oklahoma? It is 31″ for Kansas.

      1. I’ve lived in Oklahoma for 63 years and grew up in the concrete business and I am still involved in the foundation end of it today and I’ve never figured out why almost no one builds basements here but they don’t. About the only time you will find a house with a basement is if you go to an old neighborhood that was built in the twenties or thirties and then you will find that those builders realized the advantages of a house with a basement.
        As far as the freeze line goes, 18″ is standard foundation depth but I’ve only seen it freeze 12″in depth in all my life and I have been digging forever. In a related note, it seems that we no longer have winters here; at least not like the winters we had growing up 50 years ago. Probably just a normal earth weather cycle.

  12. Jake, Thank you for a broad approach to a very complex subject. Hopefully you have opened a floodgate. I am a builder in northern Florida but have built in California and extensively in Colorado and now in Florida. From this experience I realize how incredibly conditions and techniques vary in different regions. This is extremely important.

    I think we all agree it would be tremendous if skilled builders and designers could post on this subject. The more from diverse areas of the country and even the world would be most beneficial.

  13. Before you even consider sticking a shovel in the ground do go down to your local county extension office and ask for a soil survey map from the USDA. These maps are usually free for the asking and besides aerial maps of your county the maps profile the soil types, where they are, and what you can do with them, plant on them and build on them. You will not only familiarize yourself with the soils but also soil structures and compositions. I did this on the property I live on nearly 40 years ago. It helped me to determine where to build, how the soil would drain (important for septic systems and ground water tables).
    I learned all this from a friend who was an agronomy major. It served me in good stead over the years.

  14. As a retired architect who worked in several states over the course of my career, from Florida, Virginia, NY and NJ to Texas and Colorado, I can attest to the truth of Wood Tamer’s comment re: the diversity of building conditions and methods in all the various regions of the country. Differences come about due to environmental conditions and available building materials, and they change over time as technology and tastes change.

    In South Florida, wood is an expensive commodity because it must all be shipped in from other states. However, the various materials needed for Concrete Masonry Units (CMUs), cement, aggregate and mortar are economical and found locally, and the ground is fairly stable since most of the state is a huge, ancient coral reef – well, aside from the sinkholes that open up unexpectedly, that Is. Therefore, houses are built on slabs on grade and walls are CBS construction – Concrete Block and Stucco, Concrete Block being the imprecise term for CMUs. Interior walls are built using steel studs and drywall. Roofs are typically at a shallow slope and might be covered with asphalt shingles, metal sheeting or terra cotta barrel tiles or flat concrete tiles. All these materials have been shown to hold up relatively well to a moderate strength hurricane, except for the asphalt shingles which are a fairly new phenomenon down there. In fact, since the building codes were changed after Hurricane Andrew in the 1980s, I am not sure if they are even permitted anymore since I left there prior to that.

    Red brick has always been a common building material in central Virginia because the red clay needed to make it is everywhere. That is why Thomas Jefferson used it at Monticello and UVa.

    In Texas, a soil survey is very helpful prior to deciding what kind of foundation to use since the soils in and around the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex have some of the most extreme swelling and shrinkage rates of anywhere in North America. Pier and Beam foundations are quite common as a way to prevent foundation troubles over the life of a building there. The beams might support a slab or a traditional wood floor, but the piers and beams are doing the real work of supporting the structure. Face brick over stud and gypsum board walls with building wrap (Tyvek or similar) is common on the more expensive houses because experienced brick masons are easy to find and economical to hire. Asphalt shingle roofs become problematic due to high winds and hail storms but they get used alot anyway.
    BTW, the soil survey information for Texas is available for free online. I don’t remember the website anymore but I found it several years ago just by Googling a bunch. You can also find info online re: what trees will grow in what parts of Texas and in what soil types.

    In Colorado, wood is readily available, including logs, although not necessarily cheaply. And, if you are up in the hills or mountains, there is a good chance you are building on granite bedrock, so basements are usually walk-outs if you have one at all. Otherwise, you can be pretty sure you will have a crawl space. If you are in town along the Front Range (Denver, Fort Collins, Colorado Springs and the built up areas between) you are more likely to find walk out basements than up in the mountains, and less likely to find log cabins. Metal roofs are becoming more common in the mountains as people are realizing how nicely snow slides off them and that they are not flammable. In Boulder County, cedar shake shingle roofs were banned 20 or so years ago. No new ones were allowed and old ones had to be replaced with a non-flammable roof by a certain date. Nearly 10 years ago, a wildfire west of town moved to the outskirts of town, at which point people realized that law was a good idea after all. What really bothers me is that, in order to get a building permit you need a zoning permit (that’s logical) and in order to get a zoning permit, you need a sign off from the Forestry Dept. That’s not too bad either. But where it gets aggravating is that the Forestry Dept will tell you to remove all flammable materials within 50′ of your structure. You bought a nice piece of property in the mountains with trees for shade and as a wind break but the Forestry Dept then tells you to cut them down if they are anywhere close to your house. But they think it is quite all right to then build your house with lots of flammable materials like pine logs, cedar siding, asphalt shingles (asphalt is a petroleum-based product and, although shingles don’t have a lot of asphalt in them anymore, I don’t think a wildfire cares). Nobody in the bureaucracy makes any suggestions about building with concrete or CMUs or even using Hardie Plank for siding instead of cedar or vinyl. they just want you to cut down your trees and not plant anything, including grass, ground cover or flowers, within 50′ of your house. So, instead you can pave, put down gravel or worry about erosion. Great! And then, our County government started making noises about taxing homeowners based on the amount of impermeable surface on your property because of problems in town with rain runoff into the storm drainage system. We were up in the mountains. We didn’t have ditches, let alone a storm drainage system, but paving the driveway, finally, made snow removal much easier and we didn’t break nearly as many shear pins afterwards.

    In the Northeast (NY & NJ), since houses have been built there for over 200 years now, there isn’t much that can be considered “typical” anymore. There are houses built of stone, brick, wood, face brick and face stone over wood stud walls, balloon framing as well as platform framed houses. There are even some timber framed buildings scattered around. There are so many possible building methods to use and to find in existing structures up there, I can’t speak about it with any authority. Also, I was involved in mostly commercial projects up there, not too much in the way of new residential construction. However, from personal observation, I think that you are more likely to find basements up there than not.

    Now that I am working with a younger architect to draw up plans for my own house at our rural property, I am looking at using ICFs (insulated concrete forms) and poured concrete for the basement, foundation and all exterior and bearing walls. The advantages include being fireproof, termite and rodent proof, fairly good ballistic protection depending on how you place and treat fenestration (window openings), an R-value of R-50 or better, ease of installing conduits and plumbing on the interior, ease of installing stucco on the exterior and it makes the entire house a tornado shelter. What’s not to love? It might be more expensive at the outset but I figure the heating and cooling savings will help to make up for that and, if/when the Schumer hits the fan, we will be able to bug in pretty effectively. Of course, a lot of that depends on the design/layout of the house but that is being planned for from the beginning, including a full basement with a root cellar accessed from the basement, flat roofs strong enough to hold some raised beds for growing veggies, a rooftop greenhouse, shatter-resistant coatings on all windows, roll-up hurricane shutters on the openings around the back patio area, rainwater harvesting built into the gutter system along the eaves, a built-in generator and a battery storage area for a solar power system, a safe room/vault in the basement with a hidden entrance and a second kitchen in the basement with a wood burning cook stove centrally located to heat the basement “just in case.” Also, the landscaping around the house is being planned with defense and sight lines in mind and includes a high garden wall to protect some edible gardens off the back patio. It won’t look like a castle but it will be a citadel.

    Overall, it is very difficult to generalize when discussing residential construction in the US. We have an incredibly diverse country in terms of climate, weather, terrain, available materials and needs to be met. I appreciate Jake R’s attempt to simplify it and put it all into an article that can be understood by a layman. I am looking forward to reading Part 2 as I binge read and try to get caught up on SB. I am still a few weeks behind but there are so many projects to complete during the daylight hours and new ones keep popping up. Arrgghhh!

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