How to Build Your Own House

I promise I will get some photos, soon.

The Alaskan Nightmare House

Before Picture

The Alaskan Dream House

After Picture

It was your typical 1950's Alaskan Nightmare house. Built by people from somewhere else, who only knew flat roofs and forced air, this house was begging to be torn down. Yeah, I "bought a lot", and a foundation. 50 years of no vapor barrier, ice dams and custom modifications had taken their toll. The choice was clear: "Tabula Rasa" or Clean Slate, as my friend Carlos Martinez. we joked when we helped him build his house "what would Carlos do".... In this case, Tabula RASA!

Recently, I have been rebuilding a house here in Anchorage. It has consumed all of my spare time for the past 2-1/2 years. It is nearing completion. I designed it using the old poured concrete foundation, which constrained the layout pretty severely. I maximized everything, which involved an attic with bath, laundry and 2 bedrooms. To get to the attic, I had to engineer a u-shaped stairwell since the building was only 20 ft. wide. It has a full (12:12) pitch roof and is sheathed with metal (NORCLAD). I designed the heating system based on John Siegenthaler's "Simply Elegant" article in Plumbing and Mechanical magazine. It works well and the only problem was the wet recuperator on the Dunkirk boiler would freeze solid with ice because the system is soooo efficient. It has in-floor heat with stained and polished fiber reinforced concrete. The countertops are a beautiful white cement with a buff tint and a bullnose which exposes the crushed quartzite aggregate. The cabinets I built with the assistance of Carlos Martinez. They are 3/4" birch plywood with 1/8" strips of local birch used for banding. European style cabinets are far superior to the traditional "face frame" type. There are several reasons. 1. Ever tried to reach a can from the back of the lower shelf in a lower cabinet? A lot of fun it is pulling everything out in front just trying to find what you are looking for. Even worse if it is a corner lower. Enter the roll-out shelf. Supported by ball bearing slides, it effortlessly pulls out so you can not only see what you are looking for, but access it without having to move anything else. 2. Less material required- instead of using limited hardwood supplies, frameless cabinets use particle board or plywood. Minimal materials required. 3. Easier to make. Since there are fewer parts, there is less prep work. There are no face frames to clamp up, only the cases. 4. Doors are removable. When europeans move, they take their cabinet doors with them. With the modular hinges, they simply pop off the hinges. Awesome! I've seen cheap copies that don't have this feature, what a joke!

For siding, I used Western Red Cedar beveled lap siding 8" nominal with a 6" reveal. I treated the siding with Penofin Red Label Western Red Cedar. I am very happy with the Penofin product (caution, graphics-intensive site). I will need to spray it again in 5 years.

For roofing, I used Grace Ice and Watershield on the eave and valleys. I "hammered the valleys" as one builder suggested. I used ASC (BHP) Norclad product. Weathered Copper for the panels and Chestnut Brown for the trim. You can buy this product from Builder's Bargain south of International Airport road, off of Fairbanks Street.

I reused as many windows as possible from the old structure. I was very impressed with Andersen's "Tilt-wash" double hung windows and used those for the dormers.

The trusses were built by one of the outfits here in Anchorage. I'm happy with the trusses, but I found the company hard to work with. I've found that many outfits do not want to cater to the "do-it-yourselfer" as we are low volume and ask a lot of questions. The problem is that the information is simply not available, which leads me to the next subject.

My father built the house that I grew up in. I have a great deal of respect for the trades. We do not aim to put people out of business nor to take food from the mouths of their children. From what I can see, there is plenty of work available for people who are willing to work. I wanted to experience what goes into building a house. I didn't want to be up to my ears in debt, nor deal with the hassles of a construction loan. Another thing I found out is that each builder has "his way" of building. They tend to avoid complex details or designs and don't like being told how to do something. The fact is, there are many ways to do a particular task. Some builders (not all) like to use the cheapest material possible to increase margins. One comment was "a steep roof uses more material". This is true, a 12:12 pitch roof will use about 1.4 times that of a flat. However, you will replace a built-up roof every 20 years, whereas a full pitch metal roof will probably last several lifetimes. So, in the long run, which type uses more material? Rather than spend all this time arguing with the experts, I decided to become one. I knew what I wanted in a house, and if I had found a builder willing to provide that, I would have hired them.

I have considerable experience with triginometry, CAD software and all aspects of engineering. Although my degree is in Electrical Engineering, much subject matter is shared between disciplines. Engineering itself is the art of applying science and math to useful ends. Problem solving is a big part of the schooling required. I started drawing the plans using a product called Intellicad, which is similar to Autocad, but considerably less expensive. I went to a local building material supply to inquire about purchasing materials. First question was "who's your contractor". When I answered "I'm going to build it myself.", they replied "Oh and I suppose you will draw up the plans yourself too?" Of course the answer was "Yes, I will." And draw them I did. I used Microsoft's Excel program extensively to perform "what if?" type calculations for the stairwell and roof. I purchased the current version of the Uniform Residential Code, which was recently adopted by the extremely helpful Municipality of Anchorage's Building Safety Division.

The stairwell. I had several code items constraining the design of the stairwell. Every part of the stairwell had to have at least 6'8" of headroom. All treads had to be at least 36" wide. The "line of travel" tread width had to be uniform. No part of the tread shall be less than 6" wide. All risers must be the same height. Given these constraints, Excel came up with an ideal design of 2 straight risers, 8 pie-shaped risers around a 32" cylinder, ending with 4 straight risers. I built a scale model 1"=1' out of birch sawed to scale on my bandsaw. This 3-d model really helped with the framing.

Scale Model Of U-Shaped Stairs

Concrete Countertops

Concrete Countertop

People say "concrete? why concrete?" They think grey, hard and cold. Concrete doesn't have to look like the pavement on a freeway! It can be colored, polished, painted, etched etc. I added landscape stone called QUARTZITE to the concrete as an aggregate. I thought that it would make a great look polished... You know what? I was RIGHT! I also found out that quartzite is used to make ultra-high strength concrete. All my concrete uses Mighty Mono fibers for reinforcement. This makes it SUPER tough!.

Pre-cast Is the Right Way

As far as I'm concerned, precast is the only way to go.

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