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Design as if your life depended on it  RSS feed

 
Kitty Leith
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Location: Oakland, CA
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A cautionary tale:

There once was a young man who read Mother Earth News and got inspired that he could build anything he wanted on his own. His father had left him some heavily timbered property, high on a mountain ridge. Disappointed with people, being a wage slave with a grid-locked daily commute, he forsake society to live there out of his van, and then a trailer. I think we can all relate to this!

He built a little cabin from timber on his property, which he took to a sawmill. It fell down.
He built a little house from timber on his property, which he milled himself with a sawmill he purchased. It burned down.
He set out to build himself a proper home with still more trees from his property, all of which he milled himself. It was a nice house; a house built for two, because after 25 years he realized forsaking society also meant forsaking company and he thought maybe a house could convince someone to join him, as he was lonely.

He thought he was being very smart, drawing plans that accommodated and anticipated all his (and her) needs. He modeled it on Sketchup. It was a really nice house! He got triple duty out of his design by building half of the house at a time, elevating the floor high above the ground to store his building materials and putting the roof on before the walls were even sheathed to protect everything through the winter.. He got so excited by his construction progress that he worked furiously on completing the half a house before laying the foundation for the whole house.

Actually, he had no foundation. He'd not modeled a foundation on Sketchup, only his house. Because of his clever idea his house was built on stilts, resting on home-made concrete pier blocks. The half a house abutted a steep slope, upon which he intended to tie the entire house with a couple buried tires. No post caps, only a center tongue with one bolt. No post bases, only a hook of rebar on one side. No shear panels, only some occasional cross bracing. No foundations below the frost line. Temporary shoring and a rope tied to a tree trunk. But still he kept building, until the whole half a house was fully framed and sheathed. Thousands of pounds of lumber, precariously balancing on matchsticks that were essentially hinges. Under which was the trailer where he slept. Sleeps.

Near his house is a picnic table that collapsed under the weight of the mountain snow loads. Even without snow, I am afraid to walk under his house. Even though I won't be that female companion for him, every night I pray his house doesn't collapse on him, even though I'm not religious.

I love the idea that every person can build their own home if they want to. But pride and the DIY ethic and eagerness should not discount the wisdom of seeking professional consultation. Good design does not mean just beautiful. Good design means no re-work. Good design means safe. Good design saves trees. And lives. "A house is only as good as its foundation" is much more than just an expression. It is my wish/hope/prayer that everyone who can not run gravity load calculations or account for lateral seizmic loads and without a good understanding of strength of materials at least take their designs to structural engineers. Even architects with general knowledge of all those things run their designs past structural engineers, and not just because the building departments says to. It's because we only have one life.

Thank you for listening. Maybe I can sleep a little better tonight if I have influenced any of you.


 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Suki,

Is this a real project?

If so does your friend seek assistance and guidance from folks or places like Permies?

His design in some ways sounds fine, but by the end of your story, I was becoming concerned, especially if he has already had things fall down!

I agree with much of your premiss about seeking assistance. I tell my students if you don't have the skill sets to emulate a known historical architectural style, trying to reinvent the wheel can be costly, as your story character is presenting. In one regard his house sounds like something from the mountains of Japan, which is one style I build in, elegant, lite and sits on a post foundation. It is easy to look at and build, but without guidance it will fall down, as it would seem is destined to happen with your story character.

Regards,

jay
 
Renate Howard
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Location: zone 6b
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I was reading about log cabin construction and the source said that what we see are the examples of the best-built log cabins. All the rest have fallen down or rotted away. Some few people were really talented builders but they were far outnumbered by those who threw things together and later had problems. We tend to romanticize things and forget the mistakes sometimes.

Good story Suki and good point!
 
allen lumley
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Location: Northern New York Zone4-5 the OUTER 'RONDACs percip 36''
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Suki : Thanks for your cautionary tale !
I very easily and clearly remember the energy crisis of the early 70's, all of a sudden every one wanted to burn wood !

God! if I could only have a dollar for every time i heard ' my grandfather never graduated from the 6th grade and he
burned wood for years !'

a quick look in the local cemetery showed the final resting place of 3 of 'gramps' siblings - he had 5 ! all burned up in a fire,
and surprise, surprise, were never mentioned by the family again !

History repeats, though we no longer carry the corpses out of the houses Cellar in gunny sacks ! Big AL !
 
Kitty Leith
Posts: 143
Location: Oakland, CA
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Hi Jay C.

I think the difference is a Japanese farmhouse is fully post and beam construction, utilizing complete squares and triangles in its framework with superb joinery so it is totally rigid. And the floor is seat height from the ground so it's well grounded. Whereas this house is 12-14 feet off the ground, platform framed. I may be being paranoid and his half-baked connections may be enough, and his creative methods of tying the house to the adjacent slope >might< be adequate, but they all seem under-designed to me. At minimum, the house is going to rock and sway a lot. And currently, the whole structure is only tied to two tree trunks and one of the two temporary shoring boards had already split and broken...

I'm glad you tell your students not to re-invent the wheel!

Renate,

That's a good point you brought up. Since sub-standard construction that fails usually disappears, we aren't reminded of their failures. Sometimes up in mountain areas you see the foundations of old cabins and wonder about the former inhabitants lives, but even then poor construction doesn't come to mind. Nature has a way of asserting itself as master of us all.

Allen,

In my recent foray trying to connect with single homesteaders, two out of four I spoke with who built their own homes had had their previous home burn down! Neither knew why, but clearly it wasn't an act of God. I wondered if it was faulty wiring and electrical design. Overloaded circuits, undersized wiring, etc. And few people can build a proper fireplace and creosote build-up can also cause fires.

I sometimes wonder how many homesteaders have been killed by their own houses...




 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Suki,

That is scary!!!

Tell your friend that he can get go advice by joining a group like this and/or seeking out a craftsperson or two to ask. You may also let him know, that I as a traditional trained Timberwright, (Artisan of several guild crafts) I would never consider raising a frame that was not critiqued first by not only my colleagues, but students alike. Consensus builds better architecture. He does sound like he is once again wooing disaster.
 
Kitty Leith
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Location: Oakland, CA
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All that work he put into it...he's a really sweet guy too...we just have different values so our discourse has ended.

I suggested some remediation with more cross bracing plus shear panels around the three non-open sides, and at least something called a cantilevered column giving him at least one complete rigid rectangle under the house, but he poo-poo'd my suggestions. He doesn't participate in anything as he was very successful at opting out of society. All I can do is hope he does something or that he has a store of good luck.

 
Dale Hodgins
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I have plenty of nice flat and gently sloping land on which to build. I also have spots that are so steep that I could see a landslide taking a good chunk to the river valley 200 ft. below.

My friend who has little building experience, is insistent that the property value will drop if the house isn't perched here to make best use of a great view. His solution is to "build the foundation really, really well !!! ". He's a dummy.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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I guess because of the way I was taught, how I practice my craft, and the styles I work in, I tend to build to the site. If the best location is on a steep slope, as in Dale H's example, so be it. If the best location is on another section then we will build there. I am not challenged by flat or steep, wet or dry, and I always want my students/clients to have the freedom to build pretty much whatever they dream up, as long as they honor those that came before them, and don't try to reinvent the wheel.

Suik's friend sounds very much like a fellow that likes to reinvent wheels, do this his way (the hard way) and make a building site work... not work with the building site. Again, you can build just about anywhere, but that place is going to tell us what it needs to build well upon it...this fellow in Suki's story doesn't sound like he listen well. Not to Suki's good counsel and definitely not the the land, or his building materials.
 
Kitty Leith
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Location: Oakland, CA
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Hi Dale,

One thing I really love about buildings in permaculture is taking advantage of gravity for water. This does not mean placing the most value on territorial views. And, for those fortunate enough to have varied topography, neither does it mean bottom land. We were taught in architecture school to consider that maybe the "best spot" on the property should remain so and be left unspoiled by a house.

Anything super steep or with a cliff-like face will want to sluff it's edge off eventually. Look at the trees, and if they are leaning, it's not a safe area.

Steep slopes are becoming more common as land gets more scarce. It's possible to build on them, but it really has to be done carefully. There are steep slopes and then there are landslide prone steep slopes. We witnessed million dollar homes sliding into Puget Sound in Seattle -homes intent on the best territorial views- on the cliffs of Magnolia and Queen Anne, and the commoners felt no pity for the home-owners. So after that, we were doing pin piles and post-tension tie-backs and 20' high retaining walls on steep slopes. Really super expensive. Nothing most permies can probably afford. And even with all that prevention, in the event of a slide, that home becomes an island surrounded by slide. Not lovely. The smart thing is to just build on stable ground or find other ways to feel dominion...

I think your friend is stupid for a different reason, though. He's thinking in terms of re-sale value instead of making a commitment to the land and doing what's best for it. But I also think that like Jay says, excluding those unsafe slide-prone areas, you can build anywhere with the proper foundation and framing.

Hi Jay,

I think you are right about not listening. Maybe my delivery was all wrong. I tried to make it funny/serious with, "can't sleep knowing your house might fall on you" and "please don't die!" I'm not normally a nag, but I felt this was life-threatening enough to warrant it. But I can also see how he put soooo much work into it already that he wants to be proud of it. Like I said, the house itself he did a great job with. But does he really have to sleep under it? Especially after voicing so many concerns. I guess, ha ha, that kind of stubborn-ness is what it takes to have lived by yourself for 25 years. So all I can do is wish him well, right?
 
Dale Hodgins
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I read a book by Frank Loyd Wright where he warned about putting built structures on the best views. He said there should be a sense of discovery as you walk from the house toward unobstructed viewpoints. He may have broken his own rule at Falling Water.

Here's what my tenant did when I said he could set up near the view. All of this will be moved.

The guilty party is the one looking down. Gravel goes to within 3 feet of the drop off. A row of trees were left initially but they blew down. His gravel is only 2 inches deep. It will eventually be used elsewhere and this area will be orchard.
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Kitty Leith
Posts: 143
Location: Oakland, CA
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That is such a bummer, Dale. A hard lesson in tenant and property management, for sure.

I don't know anything about road construction. A lot of those mountain roads seem like they are what they have to be, if one is to get to the intended destination. And of course trees need more than 3 feet toe hold. I guess we have to ask ourselves if we really need to drive to the top.

Lovely property you have.
 
Sean Rauch
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Location: Winnipeg, Manitoba
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This reminds me of driving home last week in a snow storm and passing a parent riding a bike with his kid in a carrier. Affluent person in an affluent neighborhood. The guy is so committed to being "green" that he doesn't take the lives if his children into consideration. Like driving an electric car that has more overall ecological footprint then a luxury sedan because of what it takes to make the batteries.

Lots of people have the whole "green" thing all wrong. We have PEs for a reason and builders carry liability insurance for a reason. Building experience has tremendous value. I really like the comment about how we only see the old structures that WERE built correctly because all the junk ones are gone or falling down. I've done reno work on older homes and 50% of the time I see previous work that is completely gross. No building code and no knowledge.

People have no idea just how heavy buildings are or how amazingly dangerous ignorant workmanship can be. It's one thing if it's only your life at risk but what about te people who have to dig your corpse out if te valley...
 
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