Monday, February 18, 2013


Enjoy reading The Owner-Builder Handbook on this blogsite (Recently updated, revised and retitled: 
Creating a Green Home: Planning and Design

We've launched the next step in helping you build a green or straw bale home.

We hope you'll come and build with us.

Have questions?  Email me:


Monday, February 11, 2013

The Owner-Builder Handbook
has been retitled, updated, and revised as of 2013, March 1. 

The new title: Creating A Green Home: Planning and Design,
will be available through on or 15, MAY 2013

Designing and Building an Environmentally Conscious Home
from Foundation to Finish with Zero Hired Help

Written by Shannon Scott
With technical advice and assistance from Robert Pogoda
(copyright, Scott 2011)

Table of Contents

Part 1: Planning and Design
Chapter 1: Site Selection (unrevised version here)
Chapter 2: Heating and Cooling with Passive Solar Design
Chapter 3: Active Solar Heating Systems
Chapter 4: Designing a Home
            Chapter 5: Drafting Plans                
            Chapter 6: Financing and Permits

Forthcoming 2013/2014 Part 2

Part 2: How to Build a House 

Chapter 7: Establishing A Footprint     
Chapter 8: Roughed-In Drain-Waste-Vent Plumbing
Chapter 9: Building a Strong Foundation
Chapter 10: Framing
Chapter 11: Straw Bale Work
Chapter 12: Top Plates
Chapter 13: Trusses and Roofing
Chapter 14: Rough Electrical
Chapter 15: Insulation
Chapter 16: Windows and Doors
Chapter 17: Exterior and Interior Stucco and Plaster
Chapter 18: Ceilings and Interior Walls
Chapter 19: Wall Finishes
Chapter 20: Cabinet Installation
Chapter 21: Counter Tops
Chapter 22: Finish Plumbing and Electric
Chapter 23: Fixtures and Appliances
Chapter 24: Flooring
Chapter 25: Septic System
Chapter 26: The Finished Home
Chapter 27: Final Exterior Grading


Rob and I met in the Lake Tahoe area in 2002, rented a country home, bought a couple of goats, then built a nice little goat house.  I figured if we could build a goat house, we could build a people house for us to live in.  Okay, so the goat house was more of a goat shed, and a far cry from an eco-friendly home with plumbing, wiring, solar collectors, and finish materials.  But human will turns ideas into reality.  So over the course of the next six years, Rob and I designed and built our own straw bale home, just the two of us, with no hired or other help.
During the process of designing and building I read dozens of books and magazines regarding architecture and construction:  home plan books, small home concepts, straw bale how-to, classic architecture, roofing, electrical, solar energy, plumbing, western interior design, and the list goes on.  Many proved quite useful for garnering ideas and single phases of construction, like finish plumbing, but I found no all-inclusive, yet concise manual to provide an owner-builder with enough information necessary to actually build an entire house.  Even many “Build Your Own House” books consistently deferred to professional trades people rather than offer up detailed steps, like how to establish finished floor height with a laser level when building a foundation, or measuring accurately to center a tile floor.   The Owner-Builder’s Handbook intends to be a job site reference book for designing and constructing an energy efficient, environmentally sound, beautiful home.
For those who may have little or no construction experience and who have the determination to complete an entire home with no or minimal help, this handbook explains the why of design and how-to of construction.  It is written for owner-builders by owner-builders with a desire to keep things simple, straight forward, and totally do-able for the average person.  We’ve made every effort to keep things simple and brief yet still clear enough to get each task or phase of building accomplished.
For those with the means to hire help, or who do not have time to build, this volume will help make you a more effective site manager in that you will be able to oversee subcontractors and have a clue as to what they are doing – or should be doing.  
Another reason for writing this handbook was to discuss the rarely mentioned personal hardships often encountered when undertaking the challenge of building – especially with one’s life partner.  At the onset of designing and building most are filled with optimism and frenetic energy.  However, during any building process there are headaches, dilemmas, and hardships encountered along the way.  Parts or materials don’t always arrive on time.  There’s the constant struggle to keep straw bales covered from the elements.  Weather conditions may make working outside cold and painful.  The bottom line in building a home, especially for those of us who live rurally with few if any neighbors, is that building by oneself with straw or anything else is just plain hard work and slow going.  However, the rewards are numerous and lasting.  Headaches fade.  Storms calm.  With grit and perseverance, the home gets built. 
Depending upon the size and complexity of the home, you might be facing a multi-year project.  The actual construction of the home featured in this book, our home, from excavation to moving in, took three years.  I worked full time as a teacher, but every night, weekend, holiday, and days off were spent building – even during single digit Fahrenheit winter nights. My husband, Rob, a former carpenter and now home inspector, worked on our home’s construction full time.  We hired no one.
To save money and to be constantly immediately available to work on our home, we lived on our building site in a 26’ camp trailer beginning nine months before we actually broke ground to build.  We didn’t have power or water.  Every two to three days on my way home from my teaching job in town, I hauled water from a local gas station, ten miles away, in five, six-gallon containers to fill the trailer’s water tank. After becoming fed up with having to run the trailer’s electric pump for showering by hooking up jumper cables to my Toyota Highlander battery, Rob finally conceded to purchase a small portable generator.  I love that thing.
Since we didn’t have a septic system and it was highly impractical to haul the trailer off site, down the rough four mile dirt road, often in deep snow to empty the holding tank, we opted to not use the trailer’s toilet and rent a porta-potty.  The construction site porta-toilet company came once per week to clean the unit, except during winter months when their pumper truck couldn’t make it up the road.  These units freeze solid in the winter time.  After three years of a porta-potty, essentially an outhouse, indoor flush toilets proved a real luxury.
Our home for three and half years.

After about one year of working on the home and garage, we got a well and power!  We had been on the well driller’s waiting list for nearly a year, and were thrilled to have a deep, clean domestic well.  The power company finally made their way out too, to run poles to our home site – though we don’t use grid electricity for too much.  So with electricity we could pump water, plug in the trailer, and live a little more easily. 
Winters in the trailer were cold, and while building I suffered a bit of frost bite on some toes, but there’s so much to be said for living simply and doing everything by one’s own self.  We roughed it and had a ball: cooking small Thanksgiving turkeys in the tiny trailer oven; inviting our 100 lb hound dog under the sheets on sub-zero nights; and packing 3 miles of snowy dirt road with only our Jeep and Toyota tires so that we wouldn’t get stuck.  Rob took each day in stride.   On days when I had to be in town for work, he got a lot done and the home slowly progressed toward completion.
I want to alleviate any reluctance or trepidation you might have about taking on a project of this magnitude.  I want to help you do something great – design and build your own home with your own two hands.  Nothing worthwhile is done easily, and the greatest satisfaction often comes from the greatest personal investments.  Fear not, and venture forth.  You will be fine, and your home will be fabulous. 

Two satisfied straw bale home owner-builders, standing from left: Robert Pogoda and Shannon Scott at our wedding party in our 
new home.  Our dear friend Ken Glenn is signing as a witness on the ketubah or marriage contract.

Part 1

Planning and Design

Shadows from pergolas mimic the concrete paver pattern for a geometric mirror effect incorporating art into a functional structural design.

Chapter 1

Site Selection

Just one of the views from our rural western building site

The first step in designing and building your own house is to find a place to build it since you will design a home that suits the land.  Where you decide to build and how the home is oriented on the site will have dramatic effects upon mental and physical comfort, as well as your pocket book.  You’ll want to be 100% satisfied with the setting as it will tie structure to the site.  Place matters. 
Most reading this book likely live in the U.S. or northern hemisphere, so select a building site that is openly exposed to the south.  If you are directionally challenged buy a good compass or global positioning system (GPS) to orient yourself with the cardinal directions.  Siting a home to garner as much southern exposure as possible is the single most energy-wise action an owner-builder may make in creating a home that’s comfortable and pleasing to inhabit.
Do not buy or build on north slopes of land or where tall buildings or neighborhood trees may block sun from hitting the house.  A home that receives too little sun will be colder, less cheery, and have limited solar applications.  It just won’t feel right nor will it be energy efficient or economically sound.
Select a site with sustainability and longevity in mind.  That is, land that is stable in terms of geophysical features and a place you will stay for many years.  Avoid land or parcels that are within a 100 year flood plain, directly on seismic faults, or where water and soil quality may be tainted.  What industries are in the immediate area?  Is the outdoor air and soil quality generally good? 
If you like peace, quiet, and solitude, is the potential building site in a neighborhood full of teens or small children?  Is it off of a main thoroughfare to commercial entities?  Do you have small children and want playmates for them?  If you detest driving to work or to buy groceries, look for a lot in a community area with services within cycling or walking distance.  If you are nearing retirement or are retired, work from home, or other life situations where driving is less necessary, you may desire a more rural lot where you can garden or enjoy peace and privacy.  Buy land in exactly the spot that will bring you the most satisfaction. 
Determine if you will be living in your home for only a few years, or for decades to come.  When at home do you spend most of your time indoors or out?  Will you want a garden area?  A play area for children?  An outdoor spot for exercise or to barbeque?  Will this be your retirement home?  Might you want an outdoor, yet enclosed swimming pool or open tennis court?   How you live will determine the building site you choose, and ultimately the home’s design.
Even if you are prone to indoor activities most everyone enjoys looking out a window to see some greenery or local wild life.  Trees, flowers, a vegetable garden, even just a bird feeder or two hanging from eaves are very tranquil additions to a home’s environment.  Your home should not take up the entire lot.  Ensure plenty of outdoor space immediately surrounding the structure. Even if you’ve opted for a small city lot, don’t build edge to edge on it.  Leave green space in order to connect with nature on some level.
One big rule of thumb with a 1/3 acre or more is to never build on the best area or section of land.  The reason for this came to me as we walked our 43 acres for an appropriate building site.  If we were to have built on the most obvious open spot with the best view, the rest of the land would have immediately become inferior and of minimal appeal.   By not building there, we still have that place – untouched in its natural state.  We could set out a garden bench, or pick the wile lupines that bloom in early June.  We’ve walked up there just to gaze out, enjoy sunsets and sunrises, and listen to the rhythmic beats of raptors’ wings as they pass overhead. 

The nicest view spot on the land remains in its raw state.  The house still has a grand view and privacy, but spared this nice spot from disruption.
We opted to put our house just southeast of the best spot on the land.  The building site still has outstanding views while maintaining the best desirable open space.  Resonating in the back of my mind are words from my father, “The quickest way to ruin a place is to inhabit it.”  So we didn’t.
Make sure that usable outdoor spaces offer some level of protection from the elements, afford you privacy, or simply support intimate outdoor seating to commune with nature.  Outdoor areas should be neither too vastly open nor too shut-in.  Trees and shrubs can often provide just enough protection or privacy to create a feeling of peace and safety.  Too many building wings or garden walls can make an outdoor space feel like an encampment thus negating the relaxed breezy feeling of the outdoors. 
Covenants, Restrictions, and Home Owners Associations
When selecting a parcel of land to buy you’ll want to ensure tight Codes, Covenants, and Restrictions (CC and Rs) regarding what an owner can or cannot do with their parcels of land.  The subdivision codes for the land you buy may affect what you are able to build or how you are able to build it.  Read the fine print carefully.  You may not favor a grandfather clause or home owners’ association dictating what color a roof can be or that all homes must be English Tudor style.
The opposite of Covenants and Restrictions being too restrictive are CC and Rs that are too loose to maintain property values and neighborhood integrity.  You don’t want to invest time and money into building a gorgeous home that will last for generations only to discover that the person who bought the parcel adjoining yours decides to establish a huge commercial hog farm or put in a sea of single wide mobile homes for rental income.
There are advantages and disadvantages of Home Owners’ Associations.  When everyone in the neighborhood chips in to share the cost of plowing or maintaining roads, this can be a great advantage.  Having to pay $3,000 per year for this service may not be a reasonable trade off.  Make sure you check, read, and know before you buy. 
Water tables and the local ecosystem are everyone’s responsibility to preserve and to maintain in a healthy sustainable manner, but not all land owners have sustainability or local flora and fauna in mind.  A former land owner in our subdivision decided to sell when he heard that wells only produced enough water for household and garden use.  He had resolved to keep several large livestock animals, strip the land of the native Utah Juniper trees which doing so would create erosion and cause terrible dirt storms when the wind picked up, and plant 30+ acres of timothy for livestock feed.  He sold after decided the water tables were inadequate for his “needs”.  Thank goodness.
 Keep the factors I’ve mentioned above, as well as any other lifestyle choices that may be important to you in mind as you shop for land or consider the type of residence you will build.  Your environment counts.
Water and Septic
Water, good water, is critical.  What is the water source for the land you are considering?  Does every lot or parcel have its own well?  Is there a communal well for an entire subdivision or sections of the subdivision?  Are city water and sewer hookups available?  If the property is rural you will likely hire a licensed domestic well driller to drill your well, sink a pump, and possibly add a filtration system.  Most wells are affordable with water easily had in enough gallons per minute for household use.  However, if you do not have municipal water hook up available, check local well drilling costs in your area.  In our area, where drillers are in demand for domestic wells and mining exploration, wells go for a premium.  Our well is 860 ft. deep.  I budgeted for worst case scenarios, and had the well been 900 ft. or deeper, only another 40 feet, we would have had to scale back on the house to offset costs.

Steel well casing with wiring that travels from the main electrical panel box down to the pump.
Drillers usually charge by the foot.  So the deeper a well is the more expensive it becomes, and not just due to the depth, but also for the pump and wiring.  The more feet of wiring and the larger the pump necessary to pump water from greater depths adds to the cost of the well.  When metals prices are up, wiring is expensive.  The pump and wiring for our well was in excess of $7,000 in addition to the actual drilling cost.  Make sure that the cost of your well will not significantly impact your building plans. 
Drillers often charge for “dry drilling”.  In other words, if they drill and don’t hit water they still charge a drilling price per foot, but it’s usually less than the cost per foot if water is hit.  For example, a driller may charge $30 per foot to establish a functional well, but if he doesn’t hit water after drilling for days or weeks, he will charge a dry drilling cost of slightly more than half that amount, say $18 per foot.  My directive to our local driller was, “Keep going until you hit.”  Of course deeper wells require more wiring and sometimes a greater horse power pump, but these costs are minimally consequential as opposed to having no water and still having to pay for the drilling. 
Don’t put your faith in a well witcher.  A “witcher” is a person who will come out to your building site, charge a couple of hundred dollars, and walk the land either with bent metal rods or willow sticks in hand.  When the rods cross or veer down towards the ground, allegedly there will be water there and it’s a good place to drill.  A former potential neighbor of ours put all his faith in a witcher’s advice and ended up with approximately $20K in dry drilling.  He sold his land at a loss.  My brother, who has built two homes, had both his wells witched.  In both cases his wells were the deepest and least producing of all the houses in either neighborhood.  He’s convinced witching does not work.   There is no modern scientific basis for witching.
The quality of your water is critical for obvious reasons.  Some wells may be bad, and by bad I mean toxic. There are veins of arsenic and other unhealthy minerals that can be present in domestic wells.  Check into wells in your area to find out what type of water people have.  Phone local well drillers or county offices before you buy.  An informed land owner is generally a happier one.  If wells seem to be good, have your water tested after the well is drilled.  A water test will tell you what minerals are in the water and may dictate whether or not you need a filtration system.  Our water runs heavy with iron and calcium, so we installed a specific iron filter and a softener, so our tap water tastes great.

This pump house is well insulated and sheet-rocked.  Notice the 2” solid foam on the interior of the doors.

Inside the pump house from rear left to front left: Well Mate pressure tank, iron filter with built in compressor, and water softener. 
Rural Septic Systems
Where your water goes will be another consideration when selecting land and siting your home on the lot.  In-town or municipal sewer systems are no problem, as you just pay to hook into them.  But if your parcel is rural you may be putting in your own septic system.  Most often a domestic well and a septic system need to be at least 100 feet apart for safe drinking water and adequate sanitation concerns – this is usually not a problem.  There are several types of septic system designs and your local State Department of Public Health can help you with this.  The Department of Public Health is the office that issues septic system permits after a soil percolation test is done.  In our county, a State Department of Public Health septic permit had to be issued and in hand in order to obtain necessary building permits. 
In many areas the State Department of Public Health will allow you do conduct the percolation test yourself, otherwise you’ll hire a septic system installer.  Percolation testing involves digging a hole or holes and timing how long it takes a certain amount of water to drain from the hole.  You will need to record the type of soils at different depths in your hole.  For instance the topmost foot is likely topsoil, followed by some rock and then clay, sand, or more rock.  Sketch the layers and/or take photos so that the State Health Department can see the mineral levels.  If you don’t feel confident or if local codes don’t allow self-done percolation tests, the health department will have a list of people who conduct them in your area.  Once the percolation test is completed, an engineer from the State office will put in writing how many feet of drain pipes or percolation pipes you need.  The size will directly relate to the number of bedrooms and bathrooms your house will have.  The State office will also let you know what types of septic systems they approve. 
Typically septic systems and domestic wells must be 100’ apart.  It is wise to site the well up hill from the septic drainage system, if possible.  Well depths will be sufficient to avoid contamination.  Local Public Health Departments have specifics for soil conditions and water depths in your area.  Just follow regulations or codes to keep wells and septic systems safe.
Sketching a septic schematic is straight forward.  You’ll show a main, 4”, sewer line exiting the home and running to a septic tank.  From the tank you will sketch drainage pipes.  The tank holds solids, while the lines allow effluent to ease into soil.  Pipes must be level, and meet the linear feet required by the state.  Lines may run parallel to one another, typically 10 ft. apart, or be a long single row.  A smaller area with parallel pipes is more commonly used.  I will tell how to dig septic line trenches and put a septic system together in the construction section.
An alternative to a septic system is having composting toilets.  There are some very efficient and easy to deal with composting toilets now on the market that work especially well if you have a two story structure with a basement.  Sun-Mar, Envirolet, and BioLet are three major manufacturers of composting toilets that have been around for a while and offer some better looking commodes.  Some use water, some don’t.  Some toilets require electricity, but can be very low draw since composting toilet manufacturers understand that people may be off the grid, or use generators.  Composting toilet models that appealed to me were the ones that had smaller, more attractive toilet models with a central composting tank in the basement to which all the like toilets in the home fed, and reduced waste to something similar to ash.  If we decide to build a guest cottage on our land, we will likely install a composting toilet. 
Costs comparisons between septic and composting systems are very close.  You will not necessarily save money or time installing a composting system over a septic tank and drain field.  Our septic system cost between $2,000 and $3,000.  Some single unit composting toilets sell for over $2,000.
If you decide to install composting toilets, your “black” waste water, which is water or waste that is highly contaminated, is taken care of, but you will have to put in a system to treat or filter grey water, that is water from showers, sinks, and washing machines, which is still contaminated but less so than sewer waste.  Grey water systems can smell just as vile as black water systems and be serious health hazards if they are not installed properly.  
If you are in a position to install grey water recycling systems there are some excellent resources on the Internet and plenty of books available.  One book that I purchased on the subject was, Creating an Oasis with Grey Water by Art Ludwig. This slim how-to manual is fairly detailed and can help you get started.
You may opt to build a home that is off-the-grid or where you use solar or other means to generate your own power.  Suburban or urban lots certainly have access to power.  Other locales will require a decision whether or not to run power lines to your property or building site.  In our case, power was to the property, but to the building site.  Find out how much access to power or generating your own power will cost upfront, as this can also increase the cost of your home construction.
In short, think of you and your household’s most basic needs, warmth, comfort, water, and power.  Research what’s available in your area for the land you plan to build on and know costs of implementing basic utilities ahead of time.

One lot improvement you may want, or have to make before beginning construction, is fencing.  We had to fence before beginning construction since we live amongst public land that is leased to a local hobby rancher for open range cattle grazing.  We didn’t want cattle standing in wet concrete or falling into any possible holes we might dig, since here in the west cattle are still king and we would be financially liable for any harm done to a big bovine.  Not to mention that cows rub-up against everything and can do some annoying and costly damage. 
You may want to fence to keep small animals or children safe, or simply for privacy. 
An alternative to any type of regular fencing is a garden wall, perhaps made out of plastered bales or shrubs, which can be very attractive and Southwestern or Normandy-ish in style.  Just remember to get your bales up from direct contact with the ground and plaster them well with a coating that will not be damaged by precipitation.

The Future of the Neighborhood
              If you are building a home to live in for decades, study what direction you think the neighborhood is going.  Are improvements or changes in the neighborhood in keeping with your vision for your place to live?  Is there any larger commercial development planned nearby that may affect traffic patterns or growth not in keeping with your ideal?  Try to anticipate what may come or where your immediate community area is heading.  Read County or City Planning Commission minutes and recent past report, Find out if there are any environmental impact statements (EIS) pertinent to your area.  Sometimes an EIS will have set precedents for number of homes per acre, whether or not ground water can be used for irrigation or small farm purposes, or whether or not deforestation of any sort is tolerated.
Make a list of what you want to do in and around your home.  Decide whether you want or need to live in town or more rurally.  Do you need an area or neighborhood with quality schools?  Make a list of the absolute must have criteria for you building site and then go land scouting – which can be an enjoyable set of outings.  You may see places that make you alter your list of criteria.  Once you find the perfect place, remember the first rule of real estate purchase: “Never fall in love.”  You want your land for a deal, so if the price isn’t right keep looking, there are always more parcels out there that will meet your needs. 

Site Selection Check List
_____Southern Exposure to Support Passive and/or Active Solar
_____No Flood Zone and Seismically Stable
_____Accessible Roads
_____Covenants and Restrictions – Acceptable
_____Water Sources – Safe, Clean, Good
_____Power Available
_____Green Space
_____Fencing Needed or Not Needed
_____Neighborhood/Area Developing in Positive Direction
_____Neighborhood Suits Current and Future Lifestyle Choices