Saturday, December 19, 2009

A Place of His Own

Learning to build with no prior experience

Originally published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel, December 19, 2009

“We make our buildings and afterwards they make us. They regulate the course of our lives.”—Winston Churchill

All around my home are small and large scraps of paper with lists of words like “gutter spikes,” “shims,” and “Z-bar flashing”—terms I might not have even recognized four months ago. These were my weekly shopping lists, accumulated over the last three months as I built my husband a writing studio for Christmas.

Actually the “I” in that last sentence is a bit of a stretch—I actually had lots of help, but I did select the design, order and purchase the plans and materials, and do about half the cutting, carrying, lifting, hammering, etc. The other half of the construction (and all the heavy lifting) was done by my strong husband. And because neither of us is very handy or has the least bit of building experience, there were a myriad of others who came through when we had a question, a problem, or a disaster (remember that huge storm we had in October?)

So, for my fellow wannabe builders, I’d like to share what I’ve learned from this experience. Apparently anyone can put together a sound structure—the studio in our front yard is proof of that—but it’s going to take a lot of patience, friends, and bent nails before you really begin to know what you’re doing.

Another company, San Francisco-based Modern Cabana, offers pre-assembled panels to speed up the installation of their small, stylish buildings that they say can be built by two adults with construction experience (and fatter wallets) in a few days. By comparison, our Summerwood studio, which was basically built from scratch, took us three months of weekends.

The first order of business was settling on a design that included building instructions. There are books on building everything from a storage shed to a three-bedroom home with plumbing and electricity. The two that I found most helpful were, “Sheds—The Do-It-Yourself Guide for Backyard Builders” by David and Jeanie Stiles, and “Habitat for Humanity--How to Build a House” by Larry Haun. What we were striving to build was something the size of a shed, but more permanent and inviting, like house, so these books helped us meld the two concepts.

Although “Sheds” and a few websites provided plans for various sizes and styles of small buildings, I liked Summerwood, a Canadian company with an interactive website, from which you can order plans and instructions, with or without materials. From their selection of outdoor structures I chose “Urban Studio” and used their custom design feature to help visualize placement of windows, doors, and other add-ons.

Most of the big items (lumber, windows and a door) we purchased from Big Creek Lumber in Watsonville. The rubber roofingcame from Flat Roof Solutions in Tennessee; the redwood bevel siding came from McKinnon Lumber in Hollister; and the regular doses of inspiration were gathered from Michael Pollan’s book “A Place of My Own—the Architecture of Daydreams” about his own experience of building a writing house in the woods of Vermont. (You can view his beautiful studio at

Pollan was especially helpful in bolstering my belief that my building was going to be more than just a shelter. I could have gone out and bought one of those inexpensive, easy-to-assemble shed kits if all I wanted was a roof and four walls. But this was going to be my husband’s oasis, a place where his imagination could flourish and his writing would take flight. It had to be more than just practical, and I was willing to spend a little more to make it so.

Pollan admits his 14x8 ½ foot cabin took 2 ½ years to build and cost “somewhere on the far side of $125 a square foot.” Since we’ve only finished the exterior, this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, but so far we’ve spent $54.26 per square foot on our building. I know it could have been done more cheaply, but we’re happy with the results (although, I’ll admit, my husband hasn’t actually seen the VISA bills lately).

So, three months after sawing the first piece of lumber, here’s what I’ve learned in a nutshell:

  1. There are five ways to do just about everything—watch all the YouTube videos on installing windows if you don’t believe me.
  2. You’ll need about 10 times as many nails as you think.
  3. Lumber is not always straight.
  4. Two people can have very different ideas about what’s good enough. One person’s “anal” is another person’s “sloppy.”
  5. A 2x4 piece of lumber is actually 1-1/2” x 3-1/2”.
  6. Building supplies/techniques used in Canada do not always make sense in California.
  7. Buy or borrow at least two 8-foot ladders.
  8. Invest in a good framing hammer, a tool belt, a longer level, a strong crowbar, numerous small drill bits (you’ll lose ‘em), a plumb bob, and a new blade for your saw(s).
  9. Keep a steady supply of Band-Aids on hand.
  10. Find/hire an experienced carpenter willing to serve as your construction hotline—as you build, you’ll have questions that need quick answers before you can go on.

As essential as it is to have one expert willing to act as advisor, there will be many others who help make your building a reality. To give you an idea of the depth and breadth of those we enlisted every step of the way, we’d sincerely like to thank:

  • All those at Ace, Orchard Supply, Home Depot and Lowes who shared their know-how and pointed the way to the right box of nails
  • Francisco at Big Creek Lumber, who patiently helped me order and reorder the right materials for the job
  • Grant, for going over the initial plans and designing a solid foundation from pier blocks and pressure-treated wood
  • Dan and Chris, who rushed over to help us lift our way-too-heavy first wall
  • Seal, for lending us his ladder and showing us how to tie his tarp over our roofless walls in the midst of a drenching gale
  • John, for installing the door and windows, and providing lots of ideas and encouragement
  • Mike, for being on call day and night, whenever we needed him.

Thank you one and all and especially to my husband. We did it together.

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