How NOT to Build a Retreat, by The Jewish Prepper, Pt. 2

(Continued from Part 1)

A Word On Showers & Toilets

I can tell you that no matter how much you like hiking and camping, you will quickly get tired of working construction all day and not being able to take a nice shower. You also get tired of relieving yourself in the woods. Early in the process, I built a small out-house, which I used for years.

For a couple of years, I maintained a membership at a local gym for $10/month, just so that I could have a place to go shower each night I was up there working. Once I ran completely out of money, I just resigned myself to taking cold showers at the campsite.

A few months before I finished the project, I discovered that a company called CampLuxe sells a beautiful propane instant hot water heater that’s smaller than a backpack and costs less than $150. I don’t know if that product existed when I started my project, but I suspect that I was taking cold showers for years unnecessarily.

Lesson #11. Get a propane camp water heater for your worksite. It’s well worth the money.

Framing

Concrete work is slow going. Once you get the foundation and the piers up, the process starts to move a little faster. Framing can be fun and satisfying, but it can also be frustrating and expensive.

The big beams that hold up your house are probably going to be made by screwing together three 2×12 boards. Even for a small house, those suckers are heavy! To make a long story short, I recommend building them in place on top of the piers, rather than building them on the ground and trying to lift them up. Another word to the wise: in building a house, you never want any kind of joint floating in space. A diagram for how to build a triple beam might show that you stagger the butt-joints by half the length of the beam. But if you don’t have a pier underneath that halfway point, don’t put a joint there! You’re better off staggering them only a little bit, and making sure that every place where two board ends meet is resting on a pier.

Lesson #12. Make sure all beam joints are resting on piers.

Because I didn’t do this, I had to actually rip off the entire beam assembly of my house and rebuild it from scratch. Not only was this a huge waste of time, it was a substantial waste of money as well.

When you build your beams, you have to make sure to install the hurricane straps as well. These are the metal strips that sit in your concrete-filled piers, and wrap around the top of your beams. They are thick metal, which means they create a noticeable lump on the top of your beams. These lumps will keep your subfloor from laying flat. The best way to compensate for this is to cut is very shallow notch in the top of your beams, so that the top of the strap is flush with the top of the beam. I didn’t think to do this,  and once those things are hammered and bolted into place, they are not moving, so I had to use a router to cut notches on the underside of my subfloor instead. This is probably not up to code, so I tried to hide it as much as possible with construction adhesive.

Lesson #13. Allow for the thickness of the hurricane straps when attaching them to beams.

One of the best pieces of advice I got on this entire project was to use a product called AdvanTech instead of regular OSB for the subfloor. This product’s claim to fame is that it can be subjected to an extended period of moisture without swelling or deteriorating. Given how long my subfloor sat unprotected, being rained on and frozen, I feel like I could do a qualified testimonial for the quality of this product. It is worth every penny! As an added bonus, you don’t have to worry about your subfloor rotting in the event of a bathroom flood or other water issue.

Lesson #14. Use AdvanTech panels instead of OSB for flooring.

The whole idea of staggering joints extends throughout the construction process. I initially laid out my sub floor like a checkerboard, and had to pull it up and put it back in more of a brick-wall-pattern, so that there was no point where four corners met together.

Framing the walls is actually kind of fun. While everything up until now required screws or bolts, wall-framing is where a pneumatic nail gun is worth its weight in gold. Home Depot regularly has air compressor and nail gun combos on sale at very reasonable prices. You can also generally find them at pawn shops. You might even be able to find mine, since (along with a generator and a bunch of other tools I had locked up in my unfinished house) it was stolen from my worksite.

The main thing you have to watch out for with walls is making sure everything is straight and level. If your walls are a little off – including your roof – is going to be a little off. Once again, I learned this the hard way. What you think is “good enough” probably isn’t!

Lesson #15. A nail gun makes wall framing go fast, but take your time in measuring and cutting.

Roofing

There are two basic ways to build a roof. Construct the rafters on site, or purchase premade trusses. Being well aware of my own limitations as a carpenter, I chose to order premade trusses. This was not a bad decision, but it did create some problems.

My wife’s brother-in-law had promised to help put the trusses up, but around this time he moved out of state. As I anxiously watched my trusses sit on the ground, getting rained on and eaten by carpenter ants, I was once again reminded of the folly of counting on favors.

Realizing that the trusses were going to get destroyed before he got back to town, my wife and I tried to put them up ourselves. This did not go well. Those things are heavy! This is where I learned that Craigslist is your friend in situations like this. I put an ad out for construction help putting up roof trusses, and got a very experienced guy to come out for the day and help me. Also, through sheer dumb luck I had ordered more roof trusses than I needed, so the one that was at the bottom of the stack, in contact with the wet ground for months, I didn’t have to use at all. This was good, because it was so ant-chewed and moldy as to be unusable.

Lesson #16. Don’t buy any materials until you’re 100% sure you have the time and manpower to install them.

Once the trusses were up, my wife’s cousin did get back to town, which was great because he put the roof sheathing on for us. This is the plywood that goes on top of the rafters and underneath the shingles or metal roof. You need to be both strong and sure footed to put those heavy sheets of plywood in place without falling off the skeletal structure of the building frame. If you buy a roof trusses that are designed to give you some attic space, you can put some plywood down like an attic floor, and that makes it a lot easier to work off of. Of course, I didn’t think to do that until later, so we were up there balanced precariously on the edges of boards instead.

By this point, I had realized that roofing was really a process better left to professionals (especially since the plans I was already regretting having bought called for a roof with a pitch too steep to walk on), so I put out another Craigslist ad and got a roofer to come out on the weekend and put up the metal roofing material I had purchased.The metal roof was more expensive than shingles, but since I would probably be ready for a second shingle roof by now, I can’t argue with that decision. One mistake I did make was using regular wood for the fascia, instead of pressure-treated wood. This meant I had to buy “coil stock” and have somebody with a metal brake bend it for me. I then attached the metal over the fascia, which looks nice, but was another expense I hadn’t planned on and couldn’t afford.

Lesson #17. Use treated wood for fascia, and if you don’t know roofing, hire a roofer.

Indeed, expense along with time, was the main factor that held up by construction process. At the very beginning of the process, I had cashed in my IRA, naïvely thinking $12,000 would be enough to build a house. Once that money ran out, I just had to pay for things as I could, and if I couldn’t pay for the next set of materials or services, I couldn’t move forward. The costs of even a simple project can quickly spiral out of control if you don’t know what you’re doing. Once again, something like the Tumbleweed plans that are designed to be built by amateurs are a much better bet than plans designed for a professional contractor.

Oh, and around this time – about two years into the process of building – my wife and I discovered that we were going to be blessed with a third child. While this was certainly joyful news, the fact that I had already started building a house with only two bedrooms, and that my wife would now be unable to help with the heavy lifting, was certainly inconvenient. Once the baby was born, we discovered that trying to do construction with an infant on the premises was almost impossible, which left me doing the vast majority of the rest of the process by myself. So much for the romantic notion of my wife and I building a house together with our bare hands!

Lesson #18. Be prepared for the project to cost more, take longer, and change in ways you didn’t expect.

It was at this point, with the walls up, the roof on, and the interior dry, that the process virtually stalled for close to three years. During that time, I had neither the time nor the money to continue work, but I refused to quit. The unfinished cottage was always in the back of my mind, and I resented family trips or any expense that diverted our scarce resources away from construction. Periodically, I would do something, like finishing the front deck, the back deck or the steps, but in terms of substantive progress, there wasn’t much to be found. The whole thing became a major stressor both for me and my wife. I had spent all our money and didn’t really have anything to show for it.

(To be continued in Part 3)




14 Comments

  1. If anyone listening out there is thinking about doing something like this, the key thing to avoid is “not knowing anything about construction”, but this can be cured easily. If building a retreat or home on or off grid is your goal, anytime soon, the first thing you have to do is get a job in construction, maybe for a year or two. Find a small contractor with a good reputation that builds one or two houses at a time. If you have no skills, you will start out laboring, but be willing to do whatever. Forget about big companies, or big money- the object here is to LEARN. Many small contractors do all the work from footings to shingles, and you will learn how to do this. When outside contractors are operating, use your EYES and EARS as much as possible, maybe even help out. Listen to everything they complain about. After 2 or 3 houses, you should know enough about what to do and not do. BEEN THERE DONE THAT. I did this 40 years ago, and I can still build, repair, or remodel almost anything.

    1. Simple and doable advice, Sam. Another advantage of having the job is being able to put away some wages to pay for the big project. Oh, and the friendships with knowledgeable fellow builders.

      Carry on

  2. Glad to see you put on a metal roof. I’d like to invite all Survivalblog readers to consider that a home that is easily set afire externally is a BAD place to live in difficult or turbulent times. The simply solution is steel roofing and stucco siding. Nothing is completely fireproof, of course, but the relative level of fire resistance between vinyl siding plus asphalt shingles vs cement siding and steel roofing is IMMENSE.

    1. Also pay attention to the soffits, with forest fires embers get rammed in at high rates of speed. Screens and other measures will go a long way to see that the attic doesn’t catch fire.

  3. Thanks for the recognition of Allen Damron. We were “huntin’ buddies” and close friends for forty years.

    Pro-Texican and pro-gun, all the way. You can find his “Gringo Pistolero” on the Inet, as well as “Come To The Bower”.

  4. Wow these must be California prices . I live in Ohio and built a 28 x 40 -10 foot tall pole barn garage , insulated and dry walled in side with a foam insulated concrete slab floor.
    No water or septic . My material cost ? $13500. In the 1950’s before code enforcement .
    Ir was common to build a basement place beams and floor joist and subfloor .Tarp paper over it and live in it till money became available to finish. I lived in such a house for the first 3 years of my life. It is a fire trap so I don’t recommend it. Another popular option back then was to build a 2 car garage and move in . Instead of concrete piers 6 x 6 treated post would work just fine if you want to have a wood floor above the ground , which on a hill side would be cheaper than leveling an area the building a garage on in.

  5. Check out Taunton Press’ Fine Home Building and Fine Woodworking magazines. They also publish many focused “how to” books on everything from tile setting to stair building to roof framing to starting a construction company. Taunton was huge for me early in my carpentry career. I’ve found that a bit of research can help overcome many of the unknowns.

  6. While I find that so much of ‘SurvivalBlog’ while generally good is quite repetitive … this is a unique and helpful series with lots of good tips.

    I’m looking at Lord willing building a maple syrup shack / hunt camp out back in a couple months and you’ve given me a few really good ideas already.

    Thanks!

  7. Jewish Prepper, you have delivered several gems. This one, I especially appreciate: What you think is “good enough” probably isn’t!

    You serve us all by sharing your struggles.

    Carry on

  8. Thank you for the kudos and encouragement! It’s gratifying to read comments from readers who have found useful information, and humbling to hear from others who know more about this topic than I ever will.

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