My DIY House Building Story


< To put some perspective on this whole adventure, let me start by saying this- Painting and wallpapering was not a problem in the family I grew up in.  But anything beyond that was not really thought of.  Then I married into a family with a history of home building and renovation.  Talk about worlds colliding!...when my husband would say things like  "We'll just take this wall out here and move this toilet to the other end of the house", I thought he was kidding.  I never said it out loud, but in the back of my mind I thought it would never happen.  Then we began to talk seriously about renovating our small house. Since anyone over 6' tall (including my husband) could not stand up in the basement we decided to start there and lower the basement floor by 5'. So it started...removing the old furnace and oil tank, cutting out 9" thick cement walls to open the rooms up, removing the old cement floor and 5' of earth with jackhammer, shovel and wheel barrel…(*footnotes- This old house had no footings, so we had to then pour new footings and wall extension for the outside walls and a new floor.)  At that point, with a bit of amazement, I thought, "We really are going to do this!".  But when I came home from work one day and saw the front of the house supported by 2x4's it was still a surprise.

So with that crash course initiation to home renovation I was officially part of the team. From that point on I never doubted when my husband , Rik, would say we're going to do this or that.  We did move walls and toilets and eventually would participate in a number of new and reno projects. 

At this stage I was not involved with the technical end of things- designing,  permits and such.  Rik with the help of his parents, who had gone through it plenty of times, took care of that.   I guess I never thought about it much, happy that someone else took care of those details. But that was all to change!

Jump ahead 10? years to when we needed to move so we could look after my 85 yr old mother.  As far as the reno/build decisions went, we had a couple options. We could have fixed up my Mom's old semi-detached and lived there or we could look for a lot and build new. At this point with a few old house renos under our belt, we had a bit of an aversion to "fixing up old stuff" that along with a few other unexpected developments moved us to decide on a new building…so, off we went.

Even before we had found a building lot we started to stockpile whatever deals we could find on storable building materials (windows ,doors ,tile etc) . Oddly enough our collecting started with a real "find" at a local building center.  A beautiful cedar window with aluminium cladding on the outside.  10' tall by 8' wide with a 1/4 round at the top. It's  bit of a funny story how we ended up with this window. It had been in a display at a local lumber/hardware Box store since it's opening day 7 yrs back. During one of our MANY visits to that store we noticed the window was out of it's display and sitting on a pallet.  "what are you doing with that window" we inquired…"getting rid of it" was the reply…" how much do you want?" we asked…"$500?..." was the reply…We couldn't leave that behind...." Put a sold sticker on it!"….

That huge window definitely affected our house design.  You can't fit a window like that just anywhere.                                                                                                             In the meantime, we were looking for a building lot.  We needed to stay in a certain area, so that narrowed the choices.  Our former home was unique, in that it was in a city center with a lot backing onto a greenbelt, conservation area full of trees and bush, so that made us a little more choosey.  Since we were moving way out of the city and into the boonies we figured lot prices should be low. Surprise! Probably due to very high prices in a nearby cottage/lake area, vendors prices for some of the lots in surrounding areas were crazy and not a tree on them, a railroad running in front, a stinky swamp behind, well you get the picture.  Then Rik spotted a treed area with a real estate sign half falling over.

  We pulled over and he got out to walk around.  At the back of the property were trees 100' high and a river running through it.  Rik came back and said "you have to come back and see this".  It was breathtaking.  Standing there and looking up at the trees listening to the leaves rustle.  I thought "why are we even looking at this property, it's not in our budget for sure".  But Rik took the real estate number and gave them a call.  Yep the price was not in our budget but he decided to do some investigating.  There had not been an offer in 10 yrs on the lot.  Why?  It was on a river so the local conservation would be involved.  We talked to them.  Could you build on the lot?   Yes.  So what would be involved?  Quite a bit of fill had to go in.  You had to build so far from the river, something about the 100 yr flood plain.  There were no town sewers, so a septic system would have to go in.  Would we need a special permit from them?  Yes.  But the vendor had already acquired them, could we get them from him?  So with some of this background knowledge my husband could proceed to make an offer that was in our budget.  I thought the offer was pretty low.  I was already influenced by my feelings about the lot.  But he was pretty confident we could get it, and if not it was too much anyway.  The vendor argued that lots across the river were much more.  But because my husband had done his homework he had valid comebacks. So we got the lot for an incredible price, and the permit needed to build on the river.  Now on to the septic design, the house design and where the house would go on the lot.

We started looking at house designs.  With this big window we had acquired we needed a design with a high ceiling in at least one area.  We needed to incorporate a granny flat that didn't have stairs, preferably.  And because the lot was low we wanted to build slab on grade.  We came up with a design based on a log home.  I drew up many design variations, then I'd take them toRikand he would make adjustments.  He knew what was structurally sound. Then we took the idea to an engineer to work out the details.  Rik and his father were going to be doing the framing and the foundation so they were able to draw up the plans.  The engineer wanted to know more about the soil in the area so we brought in a sample and sent it to be tested.  It had clay and a measure of silt so a 4' frost wall was recommended with engineered gravel. (???? Is what I thought.  But it really just meant filling it with gravel not full of clay and other crap.)

Also the roof had to be engineered.  (Built with specified sizes of lumber.)  Also we received the level to which the house was to be built from the local conservation.  The engineer would check that too.  We didn't want to put on eavetroughs so the engineer also helped to design the runoff. (It helped to have an engineer who had been up on the roof of his own house he was building)

We decided that we would put in a hybrid septic system rather than a conventional one.  This way we were hoping to not disturb any more trees than need be.  We contacted an excavator and showed him designs of where the house was to go etc.  He said fine.  Then the day came to start digging.  Rik noticed that the excavator was not digging in the proper place. He said to stop and they re-discussed the plan.  The excavator said "Well you've got to stop changing your mind".  "I haven't changed my mind.  That was the plan",Riksaid.  The excavator sent his wife in with the plans.  Yes indeed,Rik was right.  "Well, no you can't do it that way."the excavator said.  So everything stopped.  Now what?

Well winter was coming, we weren't in a rush, so we waited until we could do some more in-vestigating.  It was a wise decision.  In the meantime Rik was able, through many discussions, to arrange with the town to be hooked up to town sewers.  It would be an expense to us (we had to get a grinder pump and pay for a forced main) but no more than a hybrid septic system and we could now build the way we wanted.

Now we called around for another excavator.  Which unbeknown to us was a family friend, Frank and his son Rob. Both great guys and fast workers.  But whenRikwould explain where the house was going to go, I think Rob didn't really understand.  But he was willing to go with it.  Others would come by the project and just stand there shaking their head. (It's a small town) I'm sure they had the best intentions. "You're building too low".  "Why are you building so low?"  "You're going to have snow dump in and bury you".  Such were the comments.  My poor husband must have rented that laser level 5 times to check.  Eventually the town guys I believe it was came by and did the level as well.  Right on.  I think maybe people saw the footings and the frost wall going in and thought it was a basement.  Anyway it was discouraging at the time, to be hearing all negative comments.  But they could not see what it was going to look like when done.  (Now we have plenty of positive comments, would have been nice then though, oh well) After the footings were poured we celebrated.  "The worst part is done" my father-in-law said.  I have no idea what he meant, because that part doesn't even register on my worst-o-meter.  Rik and his father started to build the forms for the foundation. 

It was a lot of work.  In retrospect perhaps renting forms would have saved a lot of frustration, but we wanted to use the plywood over for the upper floor of the house.  Again naysayers said that the concrete would stick to the plywood and we'd never be able to use it anyway.  So we tried to spray it down with cooking oil, which we couldn't do it fast enough (the concrete truck was already there) and it was totally unnecessary.  Also the concrete guy came by first to check out the forms.  He looked up and down and shook his head "you need some cross ties in here, this is never going to hold".  Humph.  So off we went to a metal place to get some threaded rods and washers and nuts.  135 ties later we were ready for the concrete.  It's a scary thing.  The big truck comes and the concrete starts shooting down.

 4 of us are there, running along behind jamming a stick in to prevent gaps.  All the while I'm thinking what if the forms still don't hold…But everything looked good.  After we asked the truck operator if he ever had a form go.  "Yup" he said.  "What do you do?" we asked.  "You get in a backhoe real quick and start cleaning up the mess" he said.  Whew, I'm thinking, glad that didn't happen.  So the next dayRikwent over and pulled off all the  plywood.

 Perfect condition, even without the cooking oil.  Now, to tar the foundation.  Should we get someone in to do this?  We get an estimate.  It's not too bad.  But we reason, well if we do it ourselves it would be 1/3 the price.  From the onset of this building project, we had decided that we needed to do as much as we could ourselves.  So this didn't seem like the time to change that decision.  When we first started out I wondered if we had made the right decision.  The weather had turned decidedly HOT.  The tar didn't really seem to be gong on like I had pictured.  We had drainage tile running all around the footings, which Rik  kept reminding me not to step on. And we only had 6' done.  Did I mention it was really HOT.  But then the brushes seemed to get tar logged and it started to go a lot faster.Rik would keep encouraging me, "we're probably doing a much better job than some-one else would."  Which was probably true... and they would definitely have stepped on the drainage tile.

Now Frank, backhoe guy came. Anxious to get the "engineered" gravel in, he said,  "Let's go, call the gravel guys".  So here came the gravel.  Load after load.  My husband tampering it all down.  Until the foundation was filled to the brim.

 But "oops" the styrofoam insulation was forgotten.  So back in with the backhoe to scrape along the sides to shove in the styrofoam. Having to go back and do something is not our favourite thing to do, but we'd have to get used to it.

Now the center and two side concrete supports were poured.  These would help to facilitate an open concept.

Now on to the framing.  Rik and his father started to build the front walls.  Measuring where the windows would go. (Rikwould ask his father to be sure to make the openings straight for the windows.  "You're such a perfectionist", he'd say.  But I'll tell you now ,I know how important it is to make sure things are straight and the correct distance between.  Oh sure it can all be fixed later but what a  pain in the butt. ) The walls were sheeted before they went up.  They also are balloon framed which means that the walls were 14ft tall.  They go 5ft up into the second floor.  This makes them extra heavy. The one wall was 26ft long with only 3 36"x50" openings.  The other wall was 20ft long with a 122"x90" opening. 


The second one would be much lighter so it was decided to try lifting this one first.  With 5 guys and me we started lifting.  Someone faltered a bit but up went the wall.  It was decided we needed 8 or more guys to lift the other one or think of something different.  We had some willing friends, but Rik worried that someone would get hurt.  So he asked our Rob if he could come and tie on the wall and lift it with the backhoe.  "Okay, 5pm?"  So 5pm rolled around.  I grabbed my camera and headed over to the site.  They already had the wall tied on and 2 guys were ready to stabilize the wall.  I looked to the north sky and it was black and coming this way.  The wind started to pick up and I just stood there helpless, and not taking any pictures, while the wall started to be pulled up.  It started to bend in the middle and then Rik   guided it on to the foundation plate.  Then it started to rain.  "Cut the rope" my husband said.  Panicking a little Rob ,  cut the rope in multiple places. (We now have 5 ropes instead of 1) Then it really starts to rain.  I run back into the car.  Rik said it was raining so hard he couldn't see the nails to hammer in the supports and when he came home water ran out of his boots.  Whew! Another job done.

I guess at this point I should mention that we had heard from an acquaintance that someone she knew through work was selling a bunch of windows for a good price.  Since we could make the holes to match the windows this sounded great.  We went to look at the windows and see if we could even get some of our windows.  Boy were we shocked to find a storeroom full of vinyl thermopane windows for CD$75. an opening.  Most of the windows would go for at least CD$250.  We bought about half our windows.  Then when at home Rik said "We're never going to find another deal like this.  Let's look at the plan and figure out what we could do with the back wall".  It is a big wall 25ft tall.  We had already purchased a 1/2 round window so we kept drawing ideas untilRikcame up with banking 24  2ft x 2ft windows together.  These smaller windows we got for CD$17. ea.  This turned out to be brilliant. (He wouldn't want me to say that but it really is gorgeous.  The 1/2 round sits perfectly atop.) We would not have come up with that idea had we not been trying to use these windows that were already made. We found these windows 8 months before we even started to build.  So we had to store them all in my mother's garage. As with many of the deals we found, it was long before we would need them, but saved a lot in the end.

Now on to the back wall.  My father-in-law started to measure out the openings based on what I had written down as the size of the window.  Oops!  I had written 8' , he thought it said 81".  So the opening was 15" too small.  It was all sheeted and everything.  Remember what I said about going back and doing something again, well here we go again.  In fact, there were 3 openings like that.  I do try to do everything in inches now, not feet.


Now they were working on the center support.  A  24" x 48" column 14ft high, eventually to be about 25ft tall.  Then came triple 2 x 12 's as supports for the second floor.  At this point I look at the pictures and I rememberRiksaying how much work it was to nail together all these supports.



 Later on we did buy a nail gun, which would have been good to have at this point.

 We had engineered floor joists which go on with hangers.  That was tedious work. In the hot sun.  And some of the spaces didn't get measured right so you'd have to do it over.  Or they just got left. (Later to have to put sound insulation in an opening 2" too big or 2" too small.) Now we got to use our 3/4 plywood for the second floor.

At this point along came a dilemma.  Our roof was large with two peaks coming together in the middle, but fairly straight forward.  It was to have a metal roof.  (Rik would have built the whole house out of steel and concrete if we could have afforded it.)  There was some discussion about my in-laws maybe coming to live with us, in their senior years. My mother would already be living with us so we thought "Well maybe they could kind of look after each other". Crazy, I know.  Anyway, the bedroom we had planned for my mother had a big window looking out to the trees and river in the backyard.  Whereas the room my in-laws would have, had no window looking out the back.  It had a window and unique interior windows looking into the main area of the house.  My father-in-law suggested a dormer.  (Actually, the mere word evokes strong feelings in me right now, not positive ones.)  Well then I thought if they have a dormer, we should in our bedroom/bathroom.  Besides it would look dumb on the outside with a dormer only on one side.  Rik didn't want them.  Yes it would look nice, yes it would increase the value of our home.  But it would complicate the roof and he would no longer be able to put metal on the roof. (There would be a lot more cutting with the added valleys on the dormers, which he didn't feel confident to do, and he knew he'd be on his own to finish them off, his father would not be helping him.)  The discussion went back and forth for 2 weeks.  They worked on other areas while we decided.  Finally I guess I won out and the dormers went in.  You know I really didn't know all the ramifications.  But Rik   did.  My father-in-law does know what he's doing in certain areas, but when it came to finishing the stupid dormers, my husband was on his own.  It was not easy. (And there were other problems too.)

So the space was kept open for the dormers. At this point my husband knows more the order of what happened.  All I know is one day he told me his brother came to help set the height of the roof and my husband took a few minutes to recalculate the height we would need to facilitate our big window (that started the whole design)  He raised the roof 2ft. And away they went.

 (I've learned you really have to be able to think on your feet, with people standing over you expecting an answer.  It doesn't always work perfectly.  You have to accept that too.) (picture here of the front window framed in) I brought lunch over that day, and there was my husband, who does not like heights, up 25ft hanging over to pull up the ridge rafter in the 25ft cathedral part of the roof.

 Boom. In it went, everyone okay. (pictures here of the different rafters going in) There were 4 big laminated beams put in the valleys. Here my husband would have to fill in some details.

Around this point a discussion started about how we would vent the valley rafters, since we were no longer putting on a metal roof which was to be fully vented.  It didn't have to be solved right away, but eventually it would.  Probably almost a year later. (Yikes.  See what putting in those dormers caused.)

Well on to sheeting the roof.  We wanted to have wood overhangs.  So we searched out a board that looks like tongue and groove.  I helped hang on to the 4 x 8 sheet as my husband leaned out over it with a little piece of plywood 2" x 3" to space how far the board had to go out to facilitate the fascia boards.  (I still have that little piece of plywood.  I would say to my husband "You're asking me to do something impossible for me!" "We're both doing impossible things" he'd say "Just hold on a little longer, until I nail it in."  Some times I was doing it the hard way, and he would show me a better way. Like when he was putting on the fascia boards.  He was up on a ladder and I was trying to hold the end, from the ground with a wobbly 14ft 2 x 4  "Hold it still." he said. "I can't" I said. "Stand further back, get more of an angle on it." he said. That made all the difference! Now if everything had an easy answer like that.)