Border Fort Manual: General Construction Considerations

It was late summer in 2009 when I began considering how to construct the home we would eventually come to call the Border Fort. In general, there were three key issues, all of them co-equally important and all of them incorporated in the final product:

1. Money. Our financial situation had been downright desperate but had suddenly improved enough that I told Pam, “I think we have enough money now that I can build us a house–if I don’t get carried away with the design, watch the expenses for building materials, and do every lick of the work myself.”

2. Defense. Protection from the elements was not the only consideration. The acreage is situated one mile north of the Mexican border. For the first year and some months after we arrived, an average (estimated) of 100 to 300 illegal immigrants trekked northward through our property alone, most of them following a beaten path right past the wellhead. It didn’t take a prepper (though we both have strong inclinations in that direction) to realize the house had better be able to hold its own during any attempted home invasion.

3. Safety for the disabled. My wife had already been battling multiple disabilities, including Alzheimers disease, for more than a decade. Her balance was not always good; she fell on occasion.

Every bit of the basic Border Fort, as well as later additions such as the front mud porch and back “fake” porch that houses the hot water heater and a number of supplies and tools, was designed and built with those three aspects firmly in mind. Not that everything came out perfect.

PIPES ACROSS BEDROOM DOORWAY

For example, the septic tank installation (which will be covered in detail in another post). I felt it best to hire a contractor for the septic installation because (a) although the rest of the residence could be built with ZERO home inspections by signing up for Cochise County’s Owner Builder Option B, there would be inspectors all over the septic installation (no escaping that) and (b) the contractor we used was a great guy, semi-retired, who did the job for half the price of others in the area and (c) he knew all the folks in the Planning and Zoning office, which helped ease the process of getting the building permit.

But he made one mistake. The septic tank he chose was a model he’d never used before. When he finally had everything cleared with the inspectors and buried the tank, the inlet (to which I would need to connect the sewer pipe running from the house) COCKED itself upward. The only way to “fix” that would have been to dig everything back up and bury it deeper, so I decided to live with that little-bit-too-high inlet. Which in turn meant that in order to have the necessary drain gradient leading from house to tank, the sewer pipe had to be partially ABOVE ground as it exited the building.

Which is why there’s a bit of dirt piled over the few inches of otherwise exposed pipe. It’s not a functional problem, just a little bit of Coyote Ugly…but THAT meant that where the pipes crossed the doorway to the rear bedroom, they had to be ABOVE THE FLOOR.

Yep. You have to step over a bunch of plumbing ABS and some smaller PVC pipes to get into that bedroom. I thought of building hollow steps over them, but any covering would make that “step” higher, so we just…got used to it. The good thing is that even Pam, disabled or not, bad balance at times or not, never misses clearing those pipes with her feet–nor do I, though it took months, maybe a year, before I quit “tagging” a pipe with a toe every once in a while.

The sewer (and some water) pipes across the rear bedroom doorway. Height: Just under 6 inches.

SQUARE AND LOW TO THE GROUND

Earlier buildings were often built on a square floor plan for one simple reason: That design requires less linear perimeter footage (exterior wall footage) than any other, hence less cost for building materials. So I designed the Border Fort as follows:

1. The “foundation” is simply a single perimeter layer of 4″ x 4″ x 16″ concrete blocks laid end to end, right on the ground itself. No slab, no crawlspace (which would of course have eliminated the step-over-the-pipes situation), nothing.

2. Atop the concrete blocks, for the first six feet of height and eleven inches thick, the “center” of each exterior wall is composed of earthbags, of the same sort used as sandbags for shoring up against floodwater. Each bag was filled with dirt left over from the septic tank and leach field excavation. The soil here is high in clay content; when packed and settled, having a “core” of these earthbags is almost like having an adobe wall. Two rows of four-strand barbed wire between layers of earthbags “Velcro” the various layers together. Above the window casings, there are two layers of 2″ x 12″ planks, firmly nailed together to form a 4″ x 12″ “poor man’s bond beam.” Above the bond beam, the remaining height is handled by “standard” wood framing–except that the studs are 2″ x 12″ inch boards, the bottom angles having been individually measured to match the changing bond beam below the short studs. (It’s impossible to run planking atop a row of earthbags and have that planking perfectly level, hence the individually measured studs.)

This is important to know for several reasons, perhaps the most crucial one being that holes can be punched through the walls ABOVE the windows without running into earthbags…which you do NOT want to puncture.

3. Thick applications of concrete stucco on the exterior and a standard insulated 2″ x 4″ wall system on the interior completes the wall structure in total. OSB strand board, not sheetrock, is used for the interior walls–simply because I detest sheetrock with a passion. Plus, using strand board allows the interior walls to strengthen the overall structure. The total wall thickness adds up to seventeen inches and will (up to 6 feet) stop a bullet from an AK-47, no problem. These walls also add a lot of weight, so despite the fact that the building is “just sitting on the ground,” it’s sitting there with an estimated 80,000 pounds of weight. Our fiercest winds are not going to budge the Border Fort.

This baffle wall (originally built to reduce sound from a generator) is composed of the same earthbags comprising the centers of the Border Fort’s exterior walls–except that the home’s earthbags are totally protected from sun damage, not exposed like these.

EXTERIOR DOORS AND WINDOWS

1. Door. There is only one door here, one way in or out. Construction started with two, but with no government lackeys hovering vulture-like to pounce on individuality, I eventually decided to cover that door up completely. It’s still there, but buried behind the “back porch” wall, and hardened. Hardening the door wouldn’t have been necessary if the back porch had been part of the original building, but it wasn’t. For several years, all we had was the square main building, no additions, and it LOOKED like there was a back door. However, it was a decoy. If a home invasion team had hit that one with a ram, they’d have been in for a big surprise. Inside the door, but still well within the 2″ x 12″ framing, there are five 2″ x 4″ crossbars, bolted to the framing at either end. After that comes the insulated 2″ x 4″ interior wall. And after THAT comes a tall, wide, steel storage cabinet that really helps with overall storage capacity in the home.

The front door (and now invisible back door) were set up first in 2″ x 12″ framing, the arrangements being temporarily braced while the earthbag walls were being added. In other words, the HOUSE was built around the doorways rather than building the house first and adding the doors later. It seemed the only way to go about it when earthbags, rather than traditional stick built framing, constituted most of the home’s exterior wall structure.

1a. Porch doors. The front 7′ x 8′ front porch (mud porch) was added first to provide a place for wraps and to reduce the amount of mud being tracked into the house during the summer monsoon months. That porch has two front doors: One is a standard metal clad home exterior door (same as the primary home door and rear porch door) and the other is a steel security gate/door. However, thanks to Kwikset SmartKey technology, one key handles every lock (with the exception of the laundry shed standing some 200 feet from the house). If there is a need to “change locks,” it’s a super-simple matter of getting out the little thin-metal tool and the new key you want to use–and in 30 minutes or less, every Border Fort lock can be rekeyed. Love that feature!

Security gate/door at the entrance to the Border Fort. Notice posted on the wall is for the UPS driver.

Back “fake porch” entry (door open). This 8′ x 8′ addition houses the 50 gallon hot water heater plus various supplies and tools.

2. Windows. There are two windows on each side of the house, relatively small 2′ square sliders set four feet up from the floor. These provide less daylight than many homes, but remember, I built this place for defense. An attacker can crawl through one of those windows, yes, but he’ll have to work at it, and that gives the homeowner a few extra precious seconds to react. I know I would not want to try going head first through one of those windows into a home I knew was going to be defended by a resident.

One of the Border Fort’s eight identical windows.

ROOFING

The home’s roofing is, perhaps to the startlement of some of the neighbors who were initially convinced I’d never complete the structure when I first started, traditionally built. That is:

1. 2″ x 12″ “short studs,” averaging between 14″ and 18″ in height, transformed the wavy bond beam (atop the earthbags) into a completely level upper surface so that a “regular” roofing system could be installed. This provided an average ceiling height of 7′ 6″, NOT the “usual” 8′–so it’s a low ceilinged home and likely unsuitable for, say, a seven foot tall pro basketball center. But the lower ceiling has advantages, requiring fewer building supplies, being easy to reach (if you’re long limbed enough, as I am) to change light bulbs or whatever, and being easier to heat and cool.

2. The roof trusses were built by Southwest Truss of Sierra Vista. I did all of the installation, but they had the machinery to make the trusses right and I did not. Plus, their prices were surprisingly reasonable, and they delivered.

3. Roof sheathing is 15/32″ OSB strand board, attached with plenty of 8d nails to the trusses.

4. Next came 30 lb. roofing felt. There’s a lighter 15 lb. version of this tarpaper product, but I’d never use it. The heavier felt is not only better for the home but easier to install, as the light stuff tears about as easily as cheap toilet paper. (Not that I’ve ever tried to use it for that purpose.)

5. Rafters were left exposed for three reasons. Almost forgot to mention that. One, it’s a lot cheaper and quicker than messing around with fascia board and venting. Two, I’ve always liked the aesthetics of a home with the rafters exposed. Three, I’ve seen many a fascia board deteriorate, rot, and even invite everything from squirrels to wasps to make their homes in the resulting “caverns under the eaves.”

6. The roofing is all steel, custom ordered panels from Home Depot, attached with far more screws than required by any building codes. By the time I was done with just the original square Border Fort (before the porch additions), an estimated 2,000 screws had been firmly applied. Additionally, you will note that while the over-the-rafters sides of the roofing steel panels are extended a few inches beyond the rafters, the steel at the front and rear ends of the building has been trimmed flush with the stucco, or close to it. This is a practical consideration because of the winds. We get some dandies on occasion, and even a few inches of overhang at the ends allowed the steel to lift or “flap” a bit if the winds were heavy enough.

The ends of the panels (hanging out over the rafters) are more rigid, and the winds never seem to affect those–though you will also note that I put a LOT of screws around the edges, just in case. No homeowner wants the roof over his (or her) head to go sailing off into the night.

This photo blurred a bit, but you can see the exposed rafters, steel roofing, and numerous screws holding the edge of the steel firmly in place.

GENERAL APPEARANCE

Obviously I’m biased, but I believe the Border Fort is an attractive building. It was crafted with love and care and–to me at least–both show. Here are a few photos of the exterior.

Border Fort, east side. The detached open faced mini-shed houses a very quiet Honda generator.

Border Fort, north side. This is what you see when coming in the driveway.

Border Fort, west and south sides.

FLOORING

The floors in the home are all loose lay. That is, nothing is permanently attached to anything.

1. A 6mm black plastic sheet is laid directly on the earth in each room, with the edges up several inches along the edges. This serves as both a moisture barrier and a pest barrier. NOTE: THE BORDER FORT IS ABSOLUTELY MOUSE PROOF, something you just don’t see that often.


2. Next, a layer of 15/32′ OSB strand boards
top the plastic.

3. And finally, the floor itself is composed of interlocking rubber tiles like you might see in a weight gym.

This overall arrangement has some interesting characteristics, to wit:

A. The floor is not completely level. More so than a typical dirt floor would be, but less so than a standard stick built or concrete floor.


B. The minor “dips and rises” turned out to be a huge advantage
when we got flooded a bit during one horrendous rainstorm. (That won’t happen again, as I’ll eventually explain in another post.) The floodwater pooled where the dips were lower in the floor, and logically so–but that meant most of the home’s square footage stayed dry. So all I had to do was (a) shop vac up the worst of the water, (b) temporarily remove the necessary sections of interlocking tiles and set them aside to dry, (c) shop vac up water from the cracks between affected strand boards (in a hurry, so the boards didn’t have time to get soaked enough to swell much), (d) let everything dry out, (e) brush any suspicious areas with bleach to kill any sneaky mold that might have been thinking about growing, (f) let the bleached areas dry some more, and (g) put the rubber tiles back in place. Go me!

C. As the rubber tiles are made from recycled rubber tires, they’re just like tires in that every speck of dirt shows. They’re not really dirtier, but they LOOK dirtier. To offset that appearance, Pam prefers using area rugs to cover the rubber in many places.

D. However, the rubber flooring has helped her a LOT. Her balance is not always good, and she falls from time to time. So far, she’s “bounced” when she hit the rubber, and while she’s bruised and strained plenty of muscles and ligaments, she’s not broken any bones during those falls. (Knock on wood.)

Rubber floor tiles. The fact that every bit of dirt “shows” is offset by advantages in cost, convenience, and safety.

INTERIOR WALLS, CEILINGS, and ATTIC

Again, the interior walls are all sheathed with OSB strand board, not sheetrock. Even the ceiling is composed of OSB strand board, but don’t worry about one of those heavy boards falling down. They can’t; each 4′ 8′ sheet is held in place by an average of 36 long sheetrock screws, screwed directly into overhead truss 2″ x 4″ lumber.

The east-to-west center wall, which runs the length of the home (with door openings for the bedrooms) is a bearing wall. The roof trusses are rated to handle the home’s full span without having any bearing wall in place, but it felt best to have it, and a wall was needed there to execute the home’s original design anyway. None of the other walls are bearing walls.

Walls are insulated with R-13 fiberglass batting. Attic is stuffed full of R-56 fiberglass batting.

Except for the porches, which have no ceilings and no interior walls at this time.

Each house wall is pierced twice with PVC pipe tubes that allow electrical extension cords, other electrical wiring, or propane gas lines to come into the home.

Back bedroom wall and ceiling.

Unfinished front porch interior.

Part of utility room wall I never got around to painting completely.

Attic vent. There’s one at each end for through-and-through airflow ventilation.

Capped utility through-the-wall pipe, currently unused but available for further expansion. (Two color paint job is the result of a former part time hired hand who turned out to be literally color blind.)

SUMMARY

This post in particular displays the good, the bad, and the ugly…but I’m satisfied with it anyway. When I was growing up on a Montana ranch, the log home in which we lived was sturdily built and still stands today, housing a family of renters, but the big machine shop was another matter. By the time I left home at age eighteen, that building was trying hard to fall over sideways, held up by nothing more than a few braces Dad had put in place to keep it standing. Later on, he and Mom moved to a place farther east in the state, an acreage with a beautiful two story log home that–it turned out–had been built incompetently…and it was also trying to fall over. That time, I happened to be on hand to help work on the bracing.

These were object lessons for me. I’ve always built to last, no matter what I was building. The Border Fort may have its quirks, but it’s not going anywhere unless somebody makes a concerted effort to destroy it deliberately. It’s a sturdy home, the precise opposite of (for example) a mobile home. It provides safety and a sense of security I’ve experienced nowhere else, period–and I’ve lived in more than fifty different domiciles since graduating from high school in 1961. This is one place that will never decide to “lean sideways” or fall down on its own.