What we learned from building our first house.
World From Scratch has the mission of creating a world where everyone can follow their dreams. And the way we think we can best create that world is by building affordable homes that take care of their owner by generating their own power, growing their own food, producing purified water and having no utility bills.
In 2019, we got started in building our first house to learn how it works, what we need and how much it really costs. In 2020, we finished the first prototype version of the house which includes a 320 sq. ft. living space and a 320 sq. ft. greenhouse. All in all, it cost less than $25,000 to build.
Let’s start from the beginning and go over everything we learned and what we would do different next time!
It all started with the foundation. Our architect had put in the plans to do a slab foundation, which in Colorado needs to be 3 ft. deep in order to defend against frost. It required special equipment to dig up that much dirt and lay that much concrete. So, we called a few contractors for quotes and they all came back with the same answer. $9000.
That just seemed absurdly expensive for me in what we were doing. So, I made some calls and the city planner really helped out on this one. Thank you Andy!! He talked to us about a different foundation, piers. Basically instead of one giant slab of concrete, we have 15 reinforced concrete piers drilled 3 ft deep. This changed it from being a need to have a lot of specialized equipment to something we could do ourselves. So, we started measuring out all the holes, figuring out how they would lay out and found the magic of string to keep our lines straight!
From there, we got our first rental machine, that looks like the most dangerous thing you shouldn’t be using, an Auger. Basically a lawnmower motor with a large drill… But it was a blast to use once we figured out the teamwork.
And after a long day, we had holes for our pier foundation!
We then covered them all up just in case it rained, so they didn’t flood or fill up with water.
With that out of the way, it was time to mix up some concrete and buy rebar to make a reinforced concrete pier to structure our foundation. In addition, we had to learn to get better with our string, making sure they were nice and even so that our piers were all filled up to the exact same height. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures!
Once we had the piers installed, we hit our next issue. Our architect called for 10 inch thick beams of pressure treated wood. Calling up all the lumber suppliers in our area, we quickly learned that the size was not something they commonly make. And they would have to do it custom, which would be more expensive. We called up our architect and told him, to which he said, just go custom… Clearly not quite aligned with what we are trying to do. In any case, we were able to work it out with the structural engineer and do a 6 inch and a 4 inch that were glued and bolted together. Next time around, we’ll figure out what we need and look at commonly produced beams and how much they are first before working with the architect.
After all that, instead of it costing $9000 for us to get our foundation done, we were able to get the piers and beams installed for just over $900. 10% of the quoted cost! And looking back at the numbers, we made a few mistakes, did some experimentation and had to rent the Auger twice when we could definitely do it in a few hours next time around. My bet is next time we could do it for $750.
Depending on where you live, you may not have the same problems though. Colorado has to be dug deep for the slab foundation while other places may not have that issue. Or if you live somewhere with really wet ground, I believe that pier foundations are preferred so you can stay above the water!
After foundation, comes framing. And this is where we made some mistakes that would affect the rest of the build.
Overall, framing is pretty straightforward though. Probably one of the easiest parts of the build. Very standard wood and just putting it all together one section/wall at a time. However, what we didn’t understand at the time that we do now is that you really really want to make sure that your studs are lined up the exactly hit the mark every 4 ft. Because if they don’t you will be suffering for your mistakes over and over again.
In addition, you’ll want to make sure you have something to prop your frames against so that they stay up before they are secured with the sheathing! Luckily, we made mistakes with our beams so we had some extra material to use!
And then we began sheathing and found out we made a horrible mistake by not being very precise with having studs exactly on the 4 ft. mark. Because all the OSB that you buy is built to be placed halfway on a stud and then should reach exactly halfway to the next stud 4 ft. away. When you don’t have that you can either cut the OSB down or install an additional stud. All extra work and extra visits to Home Depot. So, you definitely want to avoid that when you can. We installed extra studs and then all of a sudden we were looking at a shapings of something real!
Lucky for us, the roofing structs were already delivered, so we got together a couple friends to get them all installed. Again, we got hit with a couple issues around measurement as one side of our house was slightly wider than the other side. We did the best we could to push out the walls with the struts as we could. But it is something we had to live with and deal with for the rest of the build. Just showcasing over and over again how important your initial foundation and framing is!
The scariest part here is that nothing feels stable yet. Being up on the roof is an awesome feeling, but its all still a little wobbly. We were pretty terrified we had messed something up at this point since we figured the building would be really immovable by the time we put the struts in. And it was pretty good, but not quite to the point where we had hoped.
We soon found out we were good to go though as we added in the OSB for the roofing. I will say, this is where a machine to lift the heavy board up would really help, but a ladder and some willpower is sufficient too!
Skipping ahead, the next step was getting the framing done for the greenhouse. We took what we learned from the previous step and made sure everything was really well measured! That saved us a ton of heartache later with no need to do any fixes later in the process.
From here, everything started to get a lot easier. Adding Tyvek and some other roofing materials to guard against water and freezing was as easy as rolling it out and nailing it in. Same with roofing. While it is hot and the days feel really long and tiring, the process is simple!
Next up, we learned all about siding. In my head, we were going to just nail wood to the side and that’s what the process was. But we learned that there were plenty of other options. The easiest method, that looked good, and was very affordable turned out to be vinyl siding.
Turns out it is incredibly easy to install and very quick. Install the edges and then the vinyl siding just lays in with a few nails. You build it on top of itself to make it nice and water proof and you are good to go. One of the great things about it given our plan to make houses that can be easily built upon and expand is that it’s also easy to remove. (We made a few mistakes along the way…) And so you could take it down and easily reuse it as you expand your walls in any given direction. It is also easy to extend if you extended a wall. Really cool material and process innovation!
And then we got our first real world test! Snow! Was our structure waterproof? We were about to find out.
Not only were we very proud to see that it could withstand the storm and the weight of the snow, but it also stayed completely dry inside. We had done it, we built a real building! Well, at least the house portion. The greenhouse still needed some help!
But soon enough, we were installing polycarbonate panels onto the greenhouse. One thing to consider is all your options for covering a greenhouse. You’ve got a more traditional glass (hard for Colorado due to hail storms) to the polycarbonate panels to a soft polyethylene sheets. Each has its pros and cons. Glass is longest lasting and most expensive, especially if you are looking for good insulation. Polycarbonate panels are going to be sturdy and provide some insulation. And polyethylene sheets are by far the cheapest option, but doesn’t look as nice or has the same sturdiness if you have weather that could tear the plastic.
Once the sheets were installed, you could really feel the greenhouse get nice and warm through the winter. We had our second interior space in the books!
The next thing we were ready for was to power it. We want to use renewable energy, and Colorado has a lot of sun, so solar was the option.
A couple years ago, our friend had hooked us up with an interesting opportunity. There isn’t really a secondary market for solar panels since if they start underperforming, the companies just take them back. However, they don’t have a good way of getting rid of them. So, a few years ago, we had taken a road trip to go get solar panels. We found them and they were intensely dirty. After a quick wash, they were performing to spec. Hopefully, they haven’t figured out that trick yet since we are in the market for a whole lot more panels!
Installing panels is also pretty simple. You just get a couple metal railings and the panels screw right in. Then you chain them together and you’ve got power ready to be transformed into something usable! Luckily, Dave understands electricity, but this is definitely something that gets a little tricky and you may want some help!
While we were experimenting with solar. We started our first plant in the greenhouse as well. We brought in backup power from another house nearby with a bunch of extension cords and hooked up a little deepwater hydroponic system with our first lettuce to grow in the greenhouse.
And in just a couple of weeks with us just adding some water and nutrients, we had a full grown and delicious lettuce plant! But we’ll go into more hydroponics in a different story, this is about building!
Back to framing! It was time to add in the interior walls! Which was super quick and easy.
And with that, we begin my least favorite section of the build… drywall. This is another time when I now realize that we could make our lives a lot easier if you match the dimensions of the build with the commonly sold items. As you can easily see below, it would be a hell of a lot easier to drywall a home if it was the same height of your drywall instead of an odd dimension. And drywall comes in sheets of 4' x 8' or 4' x 12'. You’ll also note that this is another important time to have all your studs line up on 4' increments.
So, now, instead of being done, you’ve got to cut a ton of sections to go along the top of the walls and match up with the ceiling. And unfortunately, the work compounds as you get into the proceeding steps of adding putty to make it one continuous wall instead of individual sheets.
Now, the good side of drywall is that things really start to look like you are in a real house! Once you start painting, it really comes together!
Next up, I learned the next part of building innovation that makes things really easy. Flooring. While it seemed like a really intimidating next step, it was actually really straightforward. Similar to siding outside, they’ve got an awesome product that mostly snaps together and then you just staple it in. I found all of this super convenient, and you’ve got to wonder what else could be simplified in this way… Perfect framing?
From here, it was just installing the last few features of the house. Shower, toilet, vanity, mirror and the kitchen counter.
We ended up doing a kitchen countertop that we built ourselves from some plywood and epoxy. You can make some really beautiful tables/countertops etc. with epoxy that look like stone or any design you want for significantly cheaper than the real thing.
For example, marble or granite can be anywhere from $40 — $100 per square foot. Our kitchen counter was about 40 sq. ft. so that could really add up to a significant portion of the house cost ($1600-$4000). But instead we spent about $150. And when my brother came out to visit, he thought the countertop was a granite stone!
And with that. We had a few finishing touches. But we had learned a lot around how to build a house, and especially what factors to think about when you are building a house and how you can significantly save on cost and labor!
We are about to start building a lot more homes and really innovating around how they can be built, using each house as a learning experience to better understand how to build the next one even better. If you’d like to join us in figuring out how to build a better home, check out World From Scratch!