How To Build a House Single Handed

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Once we had four off grid acres in southeastern Arizona, we naturally wanted to build a house. Doing it single handed sounded like the only way to go for a number of reasons: Our financial situation, though improved from what it had been, was hardly conducive to overspending…I wanted to be able to improvise constantly without having to listen to coworkers who might argue against a given idea…and, quite frankly the most powerful reason of all, I’m just not a team player.

In the end, what came into being was a “hybrid earthbag home”. It has a perimeter foundation of loose concrete blocks set squarely on the ground, earthbag walls for the first six feet of height, standard (though heavy) timber framing above that, and a “normal” roof composed of premanufactured trusses, sheathing, roofing felt, and steel roofing panels.

We’ve had a number of readers who were (and/or are) looking at going off grid, building their own homes according to their own tastes and budgets. Some of them have admitting being new to the DIY (Do It Yourself) building concept and wondered if a post could be provided that might at least show the steps involved in building an entire domicile single handed.

Initially, I worked up an entire Table of Contents listing all sorts of articles I’d done on various smaller projects within the overall home building concept–but that was at another site, which I did not own.

The time came when moving on to my own site (this one) became the thing to do.

Migrating like that turned out to be a huge project in itself–1,576 online articles to either delete entirely (trash) or copy and paste to Ghost32writer, piece by piece, photograph by photograph. Setting up a complete new Table of Contents was, quite frankly, more than I cared to handle.

Because of all that, this page is being converted somewhat. The original images are still included. Links to other articles are not, though a number of those (articles) can be found in the How To Index near the top of any page on the site.

And so, the journey….

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In Cochise County, Arizona, there’s an Amendment to the Building Code that allows an owner builder to take Option Two…and thereby gain an exemption from any building inspections whatsoever, once the septic system has been installed (that does get inspected). I signed on for that (Option B), gave the County folks a sketch showing the dimensions and number of bedrooms of the house I planned to build.

After that, I was on my own. I could build anything I wanted, out of any materials I chose, nearly as free as the pioneers to do it my way.

The above photo shows the first steps:

1. After somewhat leveling the ground–not perfectly level, but the best that could be done by hand with a shovel, a hoe, and a laser bullet level–a perimeter foundation of 4″ x 16″ x 16″ concrete blocks was laid down in a 36′ x 36′ square, 1,296 square feet if measured on the outsides of the future walls.

2. Every other builder out there puts the house together first and then adds the doors. This one is reversed; the doors were framed in, with the framing spiked to the concrete. The house was to be built around the doors.

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The core of the exterior wall system is made of earthbags, filled with dirt left over from the excavation for the septic tank and leach fields. Two runs of 4-point barbed wire between rows of bags is enough to lock everything tightly together, sort of like Velcro on steroids.

The stucco netting paper (shown above) was a mistake. It later dawned on me that only if the concrete stucco (to be added later) was allowed to fill in the curves and cracks between earthbags would the overall home become a monolithic thing, solid as the Rock of Gibraltar.

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We call our home the Border Fort…for a reason. It was built that way from the ground up, with defense firmly in mind. We live 1 mile from the Mexican border. The drug cartels are active all over the place, illegal immigrants sometimes pour through our property in noticeable numbers, and there are plenty of murders and home invasions even just on our side of the border.

Therefore, the windows are relatively small, 24″ x 24″ sliders, two per side, eight total, with none of them low to the ground–they all start at four feet from the surface and go up from there.

So, once the earthbag rows reached four feet in height, the windows were propped up in place with foot long spiked counter sunk through the lower framing boards and down through a couple of rows of earthbags.

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In December of 2009, roughly two months after the start of the project, a 75 mph wind gust flattened two of my painstakingly erected earthbag walls. I had them back up in two weeks flat, firmly braced this time.

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As part of the lesson learned from the flattened walls, the upper portion of the side walls was redesigned in my head. A 2″ x 12″ plank run was set on top of the earthbags, which topped out at six feet in height (on average–millimeter precision with earthbags is not possible).

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Above that bag-topper planking, “top-framing” produced a perfectly level upper platform upon which a standard roof system could be erected. To match the lower plank (the one that rests on the earthbags), which is of necessity a bit wavy, each bottom end of the short (14″ to 18″) studs had the angle measured by hand prior to cutting. Note: The planking atop those earthbags is secured to the earthbags by a whole bunch of 100d (foot long) spikes, one sunk through every bag on the top two perimeter rows.)

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The standard 36′ trusses were prebuilt by a local specialty company but were brought up to the roof and secured in place (using hurricane ties) by me alone. The very thought terrified my wife…until she watched me install a couple of them, and then she understood why it was no big deal.

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Roofing was straightforward, simply a layer of OSB strand board for sheathing, then tarpaper (roofing felt), then a set of custom ordered steel roofing panels. Passing materials up to the roof was simple in part because the structure been deliberately built as low as possible, rising directly from the Earth and hitting ceiling height at seven feet, six inches.

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With the roof finished, it was time to sheathe over the open stud framing (the “top framing”) on all sides, slap up stucco netting, and apply a couple of thick coats of concrete stucco. Curiously, it just worked out to two coats on the stucco, and worked well.

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After that, two coats of paint, and the shell of the home was done. We’d been living in it from the time the sheathing was finished, weeks before the weather warmed enough to throw stucco that year, but it was not mouse proof until the stucco sealed all the entry points through the earthbags.

Update: We moved into the Border Fort somewhere around May 15, 2010. Today is October 11, 2013, more than 3 1/2 years later. The Fort now has “real” floors (loose lay, three layer, but real), flush toilets, high end kitchen cabinets, a clawfoot bathtub with shower, propane fridge/freezer, propane kitchen range, plus plenty of projects yet to do. So far, except for a couple of bits of excavation by a friend with a backhoe, I’ve still to this day done every bit of construction labor there was to be done.

Figuring out how to build a house single handed is definitely possible…once a fellow’s made up his mind to do it.

6 thoughts on “How To Build a House Single Handed

  1. Hi there, very nice to see the process and the comments about learning on the go. It would be really nice to see some pics from inside. Thanks. Greetings from the south (Uruguay)

  2. Thanks for commenting, David. As a writer, I definitely appreciate it.

    As for pictures of the interior, though, that’s a bit problematic:

    1. I’m constantly adding projects, upgrading the interior, so pictures taken one year often look totally different than the year before.

    2. Since we still don’t have the house rigged fully the way we want it–there’s a fair bit of clutter left to either eliminate or organize–I’m not willing to post an overall photo spread of the interior that would most likely convince our community there are out of control hoarders in their midst. When we get everything squared away (hopefully by year end 2014, the way it’s looking), then yes. But it may be two years; I may not decide to do that until I’ve (finally) rewired the entire house and eliminated the heavy duty extension cords that still power everything at this point.

    3. Most inside projects that I have photographed are focused on the specific project, with wide shots avoided.

    That said, there are a few interior shots that we have done, mostly listed in the How To Index. One example: How To Subdivide Your Bedroom Into Two Bedrooms, a project done in December 2013.

  3. Just found you’re place. You sound like me w/ the divorces and jobs,lol.
    I want/need to move back to Arizona,but.
    I want to do my own house. Is still the way it was for you? Option 2 or B? That would be awesome!
    Thanks and thanks for what you do here.

  4. David: Thanks; I’ll definitely keep it up.
    ———–
    Larry: Yes, Option 2 or B–in Cochise County, anyway, the Owner Builder Amendment added to the building code in 2005. Don’t know what the rules are in any other county. I do know it was definitely the only way to go for me.

    You’re welcome, and thanks for commenting–also, best wishes for getting back to Arizona. 🙂

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