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Intentionally underbuilding

Carrying salvaged lumberAs we pull together our first semi-serious structure on the farm, we've received a lot of feedback from really helpful folks who want us to build something more sturdy.  Some of the feedback is right on track --- we are new to this after all and we just miss some steps.  For example, we'll be adding a header to both load-bearing walls to fix the window/door problem and will add rim joists on the ends of the floor joists.

On the other hand, we've intentionally underbuilt some areas rather than following the conventional wisdom to build a house that'll last two hundred years.  Americans seem to be obsessed with building things to last centuries --- odd since Europeans have only been on this continent for a few hundred years.  As a nation, we build out of steel and concrete, then opt to tear it all down twenty years later to build something bigger and better.  The rubble is unusable --- pure waste.  It's almost as if we're struggling to overcome our own mortality, or to prove ourselves immune to the natural cycle of decay.

When we visited Mexico, our tour guide told us that traditional Mayan families tore down their houses and rebuilt them every few years.  The structures were made of plant matter that could end up back in the garden, so this wasn't really waste.  They also built modularly, making several small structures instead of one huge house so that when one hut had to be taken down it didn't turn their lives inside out.  Similarly, the folks who lived on our farm before us believed that a dozen rocks sitting on the ground were a fine foundation for their house --- and the structure stood for three quarters of a century.  I think all of these people had a good point --- why not build something simpler and cheaper that won't last forever and instead plan to repair or replace in a decade or two?

Strider sitting on what remains of the old houseGranted, if you live in the city or are paying off a mortgage, you probably have to build for the long haul and abide by nitpicky building codes, spending ten times as much money on your house as is actually necessary.  The freedom to do our own thing is one of the many reasons we love our farm.  Sure, some of our experiments will probably fail, and our building piers may start to rot out in ten or twenty years.  But we've barely put any cash into it, so we can just rebuild.

Or maybe we're just young and stupid. :-)  Time will tell....

This post is part of our Building a Storage Building from Scratch series.  Read all of the entries:

Part 1: Foundation
Part 2: Floor
Part 3: Walls and scavenging lumber
Part 4: Adding the loft
Part 5: The roof
Summing it up:

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This is off topic. When I clicked on recent comments there was a big ad for solar panels in the left margin. I clicked on the ad, which offered a freebie if I went to another site and ordered the product there. I went there ( and there was a sales pitch for a $50 product promising to save big bucks if I buy their instructions. Can you vouch for this product?
Comment by Errol Thu Jan 14 10:14:36 2010
Daddy, no worries about it being off topic. Unfortunately, I can't really vouch for any of the ads --- they come to us through Google, and could be anyone. On the other hand, you put 32 cents in our pocket just by checking it out --- thanks! :-)
Comment by anna Thu Jan 14 11:05:33 2010

I won't speak for their ads, but I can say that the ones showing up on my site often go to less than reputable ebook sellers. I just do my best to make sure Google shows relevant ads. If I can't vouch for the products, at least I can vouch for their relevancy. After all, we can't try out EVERYTHING that gets advertised on our sites - unfortunately.

By the way, I just wanted to mention one reason why I feel inclined to build something sturdy and lasting. Right now I'm young and healthy - able to build something sturdy and lasting. If I build something that I plan on replacing in ten or twenty years, what happens if I lose my health between now and then? I could get in a car accident and lose the ability to walk. I could go blind. I could get a disease that renders me unable to build things. I suppose this kind of stuff shouldn't keep you from chasing your dreams, but just as I like to be prepared for a bad year by canning food, I would also prefer to be prepared for a bad decade by building sturdy.

That said - I can't build sturdy even now. I'm about as handy as a five-year-old when it comes to building stuff. But I hope to learn as I go, just as the two of you are. Perhaps I'll come re-read these posts when that time comes.

Comment by Everett Thu Jan 14 11:40:18 2010

Well, then, I should check it out several times.

Found it interesting that the site I went to promised me something free and pointed me to another site which pitched the product I had to buy to get the first site's free offer for $49 (going up very soon!) and when I closed the second site I got a site offering me $10 off ($39). Would I buy a used car from these people?

Do you see it as an ethical issue to be hawking stuff like this on your blog?

Comment by Errol Thu Jan 14 12:55:14 2010
You definitely make some very valid points, especially about the mortality issue. Good food for thought. A new building is exciting and I like the idea of pods or separate buildings so you only use what you need and don't have to heat everything. Happy building!
Comment by Heather Thu Jan 14 14:07:47 2010

Personally, as an engineer (and with all due respect), I'd have serious reservations about building something I'm going to spend time in substantially lighter than code. Even the collapse of a wooden shed can easily kill you if you are inside. And then no amount of money saved during construction will console your loved ones.

While wood is a wonderful material, it has a lot of variation in its properties (strength, stiffness) depending on how and where it grew, and what condition it is in. Building codes take that into account.

The amount of load a strong wind or a layer of snow can put on a building is huge. Try and hold on to a 4x8 sheet of plywood in a heavy wind if you don't believe me. Or check out the Mythbusters episode where they tried that. :-) The density of settled snow is about 30% of the density of water. If I did the math correctly, 5 inches of snow equals 70 lb per square yard. That is quite a lot of weight sitting on your roof. I'm not familiar with US building codes, but general engineering practice is to design a structure with a safety factor of three, e.g. it should withstand three times the static design load.

Comment by Roland Smith Thu Jan 14 15:24:35 2010

I'm thrilled to see people talking! I'll have to be incendiary again. :-)

First of all, on the ad front --- I can ask that ads like that be removed from the cycle so that they won't show up on the blog again. (I did that for some other ads I disapproved of.) Once I find that solar panel ad, I'll ask for that one to be removed. If you run across any other bad ones, just let me know!

Now, on to the meat --- sturdy building. Everett (and Mom, who didn't comment online) had a good point about what happens when we grow old and can't build any more or lose our health. I look at this in two ways. First, we're slowly putting cash into farm infrastructure every year, which means that in a decade or two we'll have done all of the farm infrastructure we need to and can start putting that money into a sturdier house for our old age. Maybe I'm unrealistic, but I feel like that point is still a looong way off --- surely we'll still be healthy at least in our sixties (which is thirty years from now for me.)

Second, everything in life is a tradeoff. Personally, I'd rather have a small, semi-shoddy building now for a small amount of cash, and still have money leftover to put into savings (and fruit trees, and mushroom spawn, and maybe a chipper/shredder...) The alternative would be to either get a real job (which is against the whole Walden Effect plan!) to make lots of money, or to put the farm infrastructure on hold for a decade while we save for a fancy, American house. I always put plants before people, so the farm infrastructure wins, hands down. :-)

Of course, our choices aren't for everyone! A lot of people don't mind working 9 to 5 for twenty years to save up to buy their farm and live a mainstream American lifestyle on the homestead. Whatever makes you happy is clearly the right choice in your situation.

Heather, I've been thinking more modularly lately, and it makes sense to me too!

Roland, you definitely have a good point about the safety issue, but we're lucky to live back in a holler where we barely see any air movement at all. (This doesn't feel so lucky around August... :-) Mark thinks that we'll see and/or hear cracks before anything becomes dangerous, so we'll just keep an eye on things. That was our take on the footbridge too, which we built for a couple of bucks rather than the $10,000 people wanted us to spend on a steel and concrete structure. Sure, the bridge only lasted two years, but we'd have to live to be 10,000 for the concrete bridge to make fiscal sense!

Everybody, keep those thoughts coming! It's great to see doubters and disagreeers --- I learn something from everyone!

Comment by anna Thu Jan 14 16:30:57 2010
I have some shorter term questions about your storage building. I noticed that you moved your outdoor furnace into the shed. Don't you then have to worry about carbon monoxide?
Comment by Rebecca M Thu Jan 14 18:23:30 2010
That's a good question! Wood stoves, like any furnace or stove other than electric, can produce carbon monoxide, but they're actually less of a danger than other source of CO since the CO is mixed with smoke (which you can smell.) But it's still a good idea to put in a detector, which we plan to do!
Comment by anna Thu Jan 14 18:51:22 2010

I agree with Roland on some of the beneficial aspects of building codes, some code aspects however seem over bearing and limit artistic expression...more on that later. As an ICC certified (International Code Council) builder / carpenter for the last 7 years, and with a back ground in Engineering, I look at projects with a different eye than most. I have seen, and repaired, collapsed roofs, rotted wooden foundations, and all around shoddily built stuff. I have to tell you from experience that repairing a rotten wood foundations with the house still sitting on it, is 10 times harder than building it before the house goes up. In most cases like that, only the bottom has turned to mush, and the material from the knees up is great, worth keeping. With materials and labor costs what they are it only make sense to built it ONCE. You may have the vigor and strength of youth now but in 10 to 15 years do you really want to do all that work again.... with an aged body. There are days now that my near 50 year old body complains...Can it still do it when I'm 60 or 70...maybe? But do I wan to bet on it? We recently put 2000 pounds of concrete into the footers for our cabin...80 pound bags carried 100+ yards to the building site, hand mixed and poured. I can say with confidence that I will ...NEVER... have to do that again. In 20 years I hope to be sitting on the deck sipping a nice glass of Cognac, not rebuilding a foundation. 10 years will slip by faster that you think, and you will think back in your mind......damn this it work.....didn't we just do this?

So, some code issues that I don't agree with...Deck Railing Spacing is one that comes to mind...code says you can't have gap of more than 4" between rails or to the deck itself...(this is to keep baby heads from getting stuck) even it you don't have baby heads around, you still have this limitation. I intentionally set my bottom rail height at 7 1/2" to allow for easier snow removal...I just push it off the deck rather than lift it up and over the rail...makes perfect sense to me.

An example of of robust building, last year when we were getting things together for our ranch (before the cabin build) we wanted to camp on our land. For camping a picnic table is a pretty handy thing, so I knew we needed one. I saw some "kits" at Home Depot for a bout $150, decent enough for the average suburban backyard...but still just some cheap 2x6 con common lumber and cheesy brackets. Having seen hundreds of tables lasting decades or more, in a harsh abused environment throughout our park system. I decided to build a robust that could still be enjoyed by my girls (or even their kids..should that happen). The end result is a 600 pound 4x6 timbered masterpiece that you could park a bus on.

Comment by Moontreeranch Fri Jan 15 11:58:48 2010

You had in your post

"Granted, if you live in the city or are paying off a mortgage, you probably have to build for the long haul and abide by nitpicky building codes, spending ten times as much money on your house as is actually necessary"

10 times the cost to build as is necessary? Hardly the case...Concrete runs from $3.50 to $6.00 a bag, a simple shallow footer could be poured with 2 bags per hole, your shed could be set with 6 footers if support beams were the added cost for concrete about $45 to $75. If Concrete blocks were used, that cost is greatly reduced. A half dozen cinder blocks cost less than $10 just about any where in the country. That alone could extend the life of you foundation by 10-15 years.

Comment by Moontreeranch Fri Jan 15 12:18:30 2010

Moontreeranch --- I love your picnic table! We'd like one like that someday.

About the foundation --- if I were twenty years older, I might make the same choice you did. In a way, I think deciding to underbuild or overbuild is something that naturally changes as we grow older (or at least I assume so from the data at hand, where everyone fifty and over wants us to hurry up and make a bridge over the creek and be able to drive our cars to the house. :-)

That said, your foundation would cost more than ten times as much as ours since ours was free... :-)

Comment by anna Fri Jan 15 14:25:15 2010

Beforehand I must admit that my knowledge of and experience with wood is limited. I would suspect that Moontreeranch knows much more about this. :-) I did work in a lumberyard for about half a year before going to the polytechnic, though. But I've got fifteen years worth of experience with working in composites.

My experience with those materials has tought me that when overloaded they typically fail without warning. I've got some beautiful videos of overload tests on several types of carbon fiber patient support tables for x-ray machines. (they are property of my employer and I cannot publish them, but there is an interesting video on youtube about the collapse of an overspeeding windmill with composite blades that was pushed way above its rated speed because of a storm and a failing governor) Typically, we place the overload on the part and it sags somewhat, and you think it'll hold. Between 10-50 seconds later it just breaks. Due to their different constituent materials, it takes time for a failure to propagate through a composite and cause collapse. Essentially wood is a composite of cellulose fibers in a lignin matrix. Some experiments I've seen and done on wood exhibited the same behavior. Look e.g. at what happens if you overstretch a wooden bow; it will just snap.

As for foundation poles, I remember from my lumberyard days that in a wet environment azobé (Lophira Alata) and benkirai (Shorea Atrivernosa) are probably the best. They are rated for at least 25 years service (untreated) in a wet environment. Azobé is very dense and hard to work, though. They are widely used in harbors as e.g. mooring posts. Western red cedar should last 15-25 years.

Comment by Roland Smith Sat Jan 16 07:55:58 2010

I'm guessing eastern red cedar's about the same as western red cedar --- 15 to 25 years sounds really good to me! :-) We build everything with screws, so it'll be easy to disassemble and use the materials for something else when the time comes.

If we have a catastrophic failure, I'll do my best to catch it on video. :-)

Comment by anna Sat Jan 16 12:48:24 2010

If you want to know about wood types, check out the woodbin properties overview page for a general overview.

Since wood can have several conflicting or misleading common or local names, alsways note the scientific name, e.g. 'Juniperus virginiana' for eastern redcedar (which is not a true cedar, but a juniper). For more information, look up the scientific name on Wikipedia.

Comment by Roland Smith Sun Jan 17 05:39:36 2010
Scientific names are the one thing I'm on top of --- definitely know all about red cedar not being at true cedar. In my previous incarnation, I was an ecologist. :-)
Comment by anna Sun Jan 17 08:44:45 2010

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