Building a house takes many things– tools, patience, several cases of beer, and most importantly, a plan. In the last couple of years I’ve worked with a number of tradesmen and contractors, and even though I only threatened to bury one of them in the backyard once, I still recommend that anyone undertaking a project like this has an understanding of what it really means to build a house from the ground up, just in case…
Since I’m just finishing up (and moving out of) the first house I was intimately involved in building from the ground up, it seemed like an appropriate time to put together a high-level overview of the different stages of the building process. It’s not a compressive step-by-step plan, but for anyone trying to wrap their head around some of the basics of the building process, this is a great place to start.
Before You Build
It’s easy to think the building process starts with things like foundations and walls — hey, I get as excited as anyone about digging a bigass hole in the ground– but the truth is that almost as much work goes into the “pre-building” stages as actually nailing things together. Here are the things to know about it.
- Know the zoning of the land, topography, and the location of the corners of the property to determine setbacks and buildable areas.
- For country folk, make sure you’re clear for a well and septic, while city dwellers will need to make sure they have access to public utilities.
- If there’s an existing house on the property, make sure you know where the current utilities are located– trust me, the sound of a punctured gas line is something nobody ever wants to hear.
- Once the house plans are done, the exterior walls need to be staked to prepare for excavation.
More information on building plans and getting permits (you’ll definitely need one of those) can be found here.
The actual “building” portion of the project starts with the foundation, and all foundations will require some excavation. This means heavy equipment, big piles of dirt, and one very awesome hole in the ground. This should probably only be attempted by professionals using an excavator or backhoe.
The footings are the foundation of the foundation. They are the lowest part of the structure and carry the entire load of the house.
- Footings are always located below the frost line, approximately 4′ deep.
- Most common problems relating to footings & foundations are caused by poor soil conditions or disturbed soil. (If soil is disturbed, always remove and fill with additional concrete.)
- In areas that get plenty of rainfall–hello Southern Michigan–footings should have drain tile installed to remove water from around the foundation.
The foundation sits on top of the footings and carries the support for the actual building structure. This is where everything can go right or wrong as far as your entire house being level and plumb.
- Common types of foundations include full basements, crawl spaces, and slabs.
- Foundations are most commonly constructed out of poured walls or concrete block.
- Any part of a foundation that is below-grade should be sealed with a waterproofing agent.
- All foundations should include anchor bolts that will tie the framing structure into the foundation.
- After the foundation is finished, cured, and waterproofed, the area around it should be backfilled.
For more detailed information on footings and foundations see this post.
Floor Framing & Sheathing
Personally, when I think of “framing” I think of putting up walls, but the truth is, after the foundation is done, the first thing that is framed is the floor. It closes off the foundation and creates a nice level workspace for framing the walls.
- The floor is made up of a number of 2x dimensional lumber, 16″ on-center.
- Girders are metal I-beams, or 3 pieces of 2x face nailed together that rest on the foundation walls, and usually have beams supporting the middle.
- Floor joists typically rest on the sill plate and one end and girder beam at other.
- There are many rules and code restrictions relating to notching and hole-drilling to accommodate utilities (electrical, plumbing, HVAC).
- The rim joists are attached the floor joists by end nailing and the floor joists are secured to the sill plate by toenaling with 3 nails.
- Floor sheathing or “subfloor” is attached to the floor joist system and is a base for all floor materials.
- Floor sheathing is usually plywood or OSB (5/8″ or 3/4″ thick).
- Floor sheathing is laid so the maximum number of joists come in contact with the sheet and no two rows next to each other are laid in the same pattern. A 1/8″ gap is left between sheets for expansion.
Wall Framing & Sheathing
I like to think of the “frame” of the wall as the thing thing that holds up drywall (or sheathing, if you’re on the outside). Getting the wall framing right means you have to consider how the materials that will finish it will be fastened to it, and that the weight of the structure is supported vertically– which means that the weight of the roof is transferred through the walls to the beams in the foundation, and that openings for doors and windows are properly supported.
- Framing is typically done 2×4 or 2×6 dimensional lumber, spaced 16” OC
- This is started after the floor sheathing is done, which provides a perfectly flat surface for laying out wall units.
- Wall units are assembled on the ground and then raised into place and secured with temporary braces. Sheathing may or may not be on the walls at this point.
- Wall sheathing adds structural integrity to the house and is commonly 1/2″ OSB or plywood.
- Like floor sheathing, there should be a 1/8″ gab between pieces and the seams should be staggered.
For more specific information on floor and wall framing, check out this post.
Roof Framing & Sheathing
For a person who runs screaming from math like yours truly, creating the roof structure is the most complicated part of framing. Luckily someone invented prefabbed trusses, but there are still things like slope and drainage to consider, along with the possibility of falling from an unfortunate height.
- Roof framing consists 2x lumber that supports the sheathing and shingles.
- The roof can be built 2 ways, either the rafter/ceiling joist system is “built in place” or a prefabricated truss system is built to spec off-site and then put in place with a crane
- Common roof styles include: Gable, hit, mansard, gambrel, saltbox, and shed.
- The roof should be “engineered” by a certified structural engineer.
- Notches or holes should never be cut in the boards of a roof system.
- Like exterior wall sheathing, roof sheathing is most commonly OSB or plywood , but the minimum thickness will be determined by the truss or rafter spacing.
- Like floor sheathing, there should be a 1/8″ gab between pieces and the seams should be staggered.
After the exterior wall sheathing is in place, a vapor barrier or “house wrap” is installed which prevents moisture from reaching the wood structure (but allows any moisture that does find its way in to leave).
- The first sheet of house wrap is started on the bottom (and run horizontally). Each row overlaps the previous by 3″.
- Once the house wrap has been secured the seams are taped.
Now that most of the elements can be kept at bay by the sheathing on the roof and walls, it’s time to play with exciting things like electricity. The electrical system of a home should be installed entirely by a licensed electrical contractor – and this is a good idea, particularly if you don’t want to electrocute yourself. However, in most states homeowners are allowed to perform electrical work on their own homes
- Rough electric consists of all electric work and materials from the meter to the outlet/switch boxes without receptacles or fixtures installed
- Some good-to-know electrical facts:
- A minimum of two 20-amp circuits are required in the kitchen area
- All receptacles within 6 inches of a water source should be protected by a GCFI receptacle
- All bathrooms must have one 20-amp branch circuit
- In all habitable rooms (bedrooms, kitchen, living rooms, etc. not closets or bathrooms) walls without openings must have a receptacle within 12 feet of each other
The plumbing system is tasked with the very important job of bringing good “potable” water into the house and taking bad “waste” water out. This is another one that should be done by a licensed plumber or that a homeower can do themselves, but there’s no one to point the finger at then, when a toilet overflows. (Hint: If you’re doing it yourself, make sure the drain lines are properly vented to ensure the fixtures actually drain.)
“Mechanical” generally refers to the HVAC system that circulates air throughout the house. It includes a furnace, air conditioner, vents, duct work, etc. It may also include any necessary gas piping.
- Proper placement of vents is important to even heating and cooling of the house.
- There is a maximum distance vents (like the clothes dryer vent) can travel.
Window/Exterior Door Installation
Unless you’re doing most of the work yourself– ahem– it’s likely that things like window and door installation will be going on simultaneously with the rough utilities. If you want to use a fancy word for it, door and window systems are referred to as the fenestration of a home, but not ever by me.
- All exterior doors must be a minimum of 1-3/4″ thick and should have a passage lockset as well as a deadbolt lockset with a minimum 1″ throw.
The roof is by far the most important part of keeping the weather outside of the structure, and carrying water safely away from the walls and foundation. Roofing systems may be metal sheets or shingles made from asphalt, wood, slate, or fiberglass.
- Roofing systems include drip edge (a metal strip that runs the perimeter of the roof), tar paper underlayment, possible ice guard, and shingles.
- Roof pitch is measured by a number over 12, for example “4:12”, which the slope of the roof is 4 feet vertical for every 12 feet horizontal.
- For a roof with a pitch of 4:12 or greater, one layer of underlayment can be used. For a roof with a pitch between 2:12 and 4:12, two layers of underlayment are necessary.
- For shingle roofs, all fasteners must be galvanized with a broad flat head, and long enough to extend all the way through the shingle and the roof sheathing.
The number of choices you have on materials to use on your house increases exponentially when talking about siding. Brick, wood, stone, vinyl, and fiber-cement are just a few siding options. Personally I prefer wood that has to be hand nailed with impossible to find stainless steel fasteners, but that’s just me.
- Full brick or stone siding must be supported by a brick-ledge in the foundation. Veneer brick or stone does not.
- Wood or vinyl siding must be attached in a way that allows it to expand and contract as the temperature changes.
Interior insulation can be done any time after the doors and windows are installed, the roof is complete, and the utilities are roughed in.
- The amount of insulation needed in the exterior structure is determined by the energy codes. Effectiveness of insulation is measured by “R-value”.
- Insulation on the interior of the structure is used for soundproofing.
- Insulation types include fiberglass batts (faced and unfaced), foam board, spray foam, loose cellulose or fiberglass fill.
While drywall might just seem like something to be painted pretty colors and hang pictures on, it also provides insulation and fire resistance.
- “Drywall” is composed of gypsum board panels, tape for the seams, and joint compound to cover seams and texture the walls.
- Generally 1/2″ drywall is used on walls. In some states (like my very own Michigan) you need to use 3/4″ drywall on the wall between the house and an attached garage for fire rating. 5/8″ boards are also recommended, but not required, for ceilings.
- Wallboard is attached to studs first using coarse threaded screws or nails, starting with the ceiling and working down the wall. Drywall seams are staggered similar to exterior sheathing.
- After wallboard is in place seams are taped and finished with joint compound. When seams are dry the wall may be textured with joint compound using rollers or drywall knifes.
Get more detailed information and step-by-step directions on drywalling here.
This the exciting part of house building that means four days out of five you’ll go into your day job with paint freckles on your face. Or maybe that’s just me. Other than the intense decision-making that comes with choosing paint colors, here are some other things to consider:
- Wall paints generally come in latex or oil based. You can use a latex paint over an oil based primer. Typically oil based paints have a higher VOC level and are more difficult to clean, but are very durable and have great coverage.
- All drywall should be finished with a primer before painting, unless you’re using a paint and primer in one.
- Use a flat ceiling paint on the ceiling, a semi-gloss for any trim, and an eggshell for other walls. (Trust me, shiny paint is not in.)
- If you can manage it, it’s easiest to paint before trim, cabinets, and flooring are installed.
Interior Doors & Carpentry
Once the paint is one the walls it’s time to start finishing things out with interior doors, and other interior carpentry such as handrails and built-in shelving.
- Interior doors typically come pre-hung in a frame and are 1-3/8″ thick and 80″ high. There are many style options from slab to mission to six-panel design.
- Doors widths are usually designated by foot-inches, so a 3-0 door is three feet or 36″ wide.
Cabinets can be ordered to fit, or custom built in place for kitchens, bathrooms and other storage areas.
- Blocking for cabinets can be installed during wall framing to make the cabinet installation easier.
- Measuring for cabinets should be done after drywall is in place to ensure cabinet sizes are correct.
- Standard kitchen base cabinets are always 24″ wide and 35″ in height (to accommodate for at least a 1″ thick by 25″ deep counter, bringing the height of the workspace up to 36″.)
- Standard wall cabinets are 12″ deep, but vary in height.
- Bathroom base cabinets may only be 29″ high.
Sheet flooring such as wood, ceramic or vinyl may be installed at this stage, while carpeting is generally installed later. Most floors require some kind of underlayment between the subfloor and finished flooring.
- Wood flooring generally requires an underlayment rosin paper or roofing tar paper.
- Laminate may require a special underlayment to pad the floor and prevent squeaking.
- Vinyl flooring can be installed directly on a smooth plywood subfloor.
- Tile floor should be installed over at least 1/4″ durock or other cement board underlayment.
In order for all of those fun pipes and wires hidden in your walls to do their job, the electrical, plumbing, and mechanical work needs to be finalized.
- Electrical receptacles, switches, and light fixtures will be installed.
- Plumbing sinks, faucets, toilets, and other fixtures will be installed. (Tubs are generally installed during the rough framing stage of construction.)
- Vent grills and thermostats for the HVAC system are installed.
If you’re having carpeting installed it should be the absolute last thing that goes into your house. Unless you want to be vacuuming up construction dust for the rest of eternity, that is.
- Tack strips are installed around the perimeter of the room.
- Padding is used underneath carpet, and then carpeting is rolled out, stretched and attached to tack strips. The rough edge is tucked under the baseboard.
After the final utilities are in place, inspections are performed on the structure, electrical, mechanical, and plumbing systems in order to obtain a certificate of occupancy.
Certificate of Occupancy
You win. Go get your stuff and move into that damn house already. Or if you’re me… sell it and start building a new one.