Self-Building a Small House
I’m going to build a house from scratch, almost entirely on my own, and with no house building experience! What could possibly go wrong?
Welcome to the first episode in a new series that will detail my efforts to build a small house with no prior experience doing so. Expect to see a lot of mistakes along the way!
This is going to be a 750 sq ft guest house located in the back of my property. Yes, I am planning on self building as much of it as possible entirely by myself but I do intend to hire professionals where specific skills are required; where code essentially dictates it; or if I simply don’t want to do a task for any number of reasons. For example, if a task is time sensitive, then there’s a higher likelihood of hiring a pro crew. I’m a novice at literally everything about this and thus work very slowly. Also, I’m kind of lazy. If the job requires a lot of back-breaking labor, then I likely will farm that out, too.
But… if it is interesting work or is work that can be done over an extended period of time, then I’ll definitely take it on. Believe it or not, that actually describes the vast majority of work involved in building a house since the missing component is skill and I’ll just pick up the skill as I go. Seriously.
Why build the house myself? Well, I’ve been watching shows like This Old House and Hometime and the like for decades. I’ve since moved on to subscribing to scores of builder channels on YouTube, Instagram, and the web. I have a driving need to build a house myself at least once in my life and, well, this is finally my chance.
Saving money is certainly a factor since this will be substantially cheaper than hiring a general contractor… but money is absolutely secondary to just the internal drive to build.
One more thing to note: in this article and in future ones, I will likely switch between past, current, and future tenses. That’s because I actually started all this well over a year ago and it’s only now that I got around to create the videos and update the website! At this very moment I’m publishing this, I have actually just finished roofing the house. If you want to see things happen more in real-time, then I suggest following me on Instagram (@granworks) since I post there regularly.
Okay, on to some of the details.
It was important for me to realize that projects of this scope are defined more by their constraints than by their choices. That is to say, there are a near infinite number of houses that could be built in a near infinite number of ways if the choices are open-ended. Having such wide-open choices isn’t freeing — it is crippling. Decision paralysis is a near certainty without solid constraints.
So my first step was to create a set of requirements for the house that will be the bedrock of all future decisions.
I started with this “mission statement” of sorts for the design:
This design is for a small house that will be built in the backyard of a home in Phoenix AZ as a guest house for use by a retired couple.
That alone gets rid of countless possible options.
Given that, I further broke it down into four over-arching goals, upon which all other decisions must follow:
- Super energy efficient
- Universal Design or ADA compliance
- Bright and Airy
- Small and compact
This house should be extremely energy efficient, to the point that it might even be a truly “passive” home requiring no energy source to heat or cool the place… if that was possible here in Phoenix.
Spoiler : it’s not possible.
Getting to “net-zero” with just a few solar panels should be no problem at all, though.
Phoenix AZ Climate
Okay, but let’s take a step back and recognize that you can’t separate the energy design of a home from the climate that it sits in. What works well in Alaska is hardly suited for the polar opposite conditions that exist here… and vice versa.
We live in Phoenix, Arizona in the Sonoran Desert. It’s known as “The Valley of the Sun” as it is overwhelmingly sunny year round. That’s not exaggeration — Phoenix is literally the sunniest major city on Earth! You can count on seeing the Sun for 3,872 hours every year spread out over 300 days, on average.
It rarely rains, with an annual average of about 8″ (20cm), most of that concentrated in the Winter and in the July and August Monsoon months.
Summer temperatures peak at 115-120 F (46-49 C) with overnight lows 80 F (27 C) and above.
Apparently now in 2020, we broke the all time record for number of days that a high above 100 F (38 C)… and that is 144 days — almost 5 straight months. That’s in addition to the record number of 110 F (43 C) and above days – 53 – and a record number of 115 F and above days – 14. So yeah, it’s very very hot here and better believe I felt every one of those record breaking days while building this house!
Winters, on the other hand, are short and very mild. It essentially never snows and we might dip down into freezing temperatures overnight a handful of days a year, at most.
Phoenix is also almost entirely immune to natural disasters other than extreme heat and fires. No hurricanes or cyclones, extremely rare and small tornadoes, earthquakes that can’t be felt, and floods that are highly localized and managed and simply aren’t a problem.
So if we look at the climate we’re dealing with, we see that the need to cool a home dominates any energy calculation with the need to heat almost an after-thought. And to address that, the need to block the sun and to keep out the heat in the first place is overwhelmingly the biggest goal!
As an aside, the emphasis on cooling vs heating does mean that it’s physically impossible for this house to heat and cool truly “passively”. I will talk about that more in a future article.
To help with this, all windows and doors must be in complete shade during the hottest part of the day and at least partially shaded at all times. A big part of that will be wrap-around porches covering the entire North and West sides and most of the South. The East side has no windows or doors at all and is mostly shaded by large trees in the morning.
Cooling and heating will be done using a super high efficiency mini split heat pump.
I’m a big proponent of “universal design” or designing a home that is usable by anybody, regardless of ability or disability. I simply don’t understand why you’d design a home that limits who can live there.
The fact that the house will be for a retired couple does make it convenient that this is a design goal, but honestly, I’d be going with universal design even if I was going to live there.
The biggest broad stroke for this goal will be ensuring that the floors, shower, door thresholds, and patios are all flat and on the same plane, so you can get to any part of the house by rolling or even by walking without picking up your feet at all. That does require careful planning in many cases.
Next up are the simple things like ensuring that all doors be at least 36″ wide and any door handles be levers and the like.
Specifically, I will be designing the bathroom and kitchen to match ADA Standards for Accessible Design. And concretely, this will be by following the NKBA standards on specific dimensions and offsets and the like.
Bright and Airy
Small homes have a tendency to be dark “caves” and the extensive patios and shading techniques used on this house have a potential to make this worse. Thus, ensuring that this ends up bright and airy means it needs to be a top-level design goal.
First up, this means higher ceilings in the main living area — either a faulted ceiling or a raised one. Then, ample space between objects in the room, even given limited space. Colors will be light, throughout, as well.
And then there will be a LOT of glass in the form of doors or windows. The North patio will have a “wall of glass” for the main room, preferably in the form of an “inside-outside” moveable wall style door – either folding or sliding or similar. In fact, the surface of the North wall will be just over 40% glass to 60% solid siding.
This can have the potential of conflicting with the extreme energy efficiency requirements but some judicious tweaking of settings in an energy modeling app should help with that. I’ll be covering that in a future article and video, too.
Small and Compact
This is important enough to be one of the four guiding principles but it is the least important of them. That is, this needs to be small and with little to no wasted space, but it can’t sacrifice energy efficiency, universal design, or a bright and airy feeling to achieve that!
Given the high level requirements, I can further break down the primary constraints:
- 800 sq ft maximum and maybe double that with the full footprint including the patios.
- Single story on concrete slab
- Kitchen + Living Room + Bathroom + Bedroom, at minimum
- 5:12 roof pitch to match existing house (ended up being 4:12 – long story that I’ll go into later)
- Hip roof to match existing house, due to planning restrictions. That constraint ended up being super frustrating, as you’ll see as the series progresses.
- Vaulted or raised ceiling in living area but flat over bedroom/bathroom, based on the “Bright and Airy” goal and client requests.
- Largely rectangular; Oriented East-West. Best match considering the existing property.
- Wrap-around porch covering North, West, and South facades. This is a big part of the energy efficiency.
- Must be visually “compatible” with the main house. This one constraint was due to a fundamental misunderstanding of the town’s planning requirements and caused no end of trouble during the design phase.
Full Requirements and Constraints
All the above requirements and constraints were broken down even further. Those are the ones I send to my architect, to start iterating on a design.
Specifically, I wrote up a 16 page “Guest House Requirements” document and that is what kicked off our conversation. I’ve attached the actual document (minus some redacted bits) for anybody that wants the nitty gritty details.
It’s worth noting that some of the “requirements” ended up being a bit more loose than originally thought. This document should be treated as a starting point more than anything. Two of the very notable changes are that the house has a 4:12 roof pitch instead of 5:12 and has an asphalt shingle roof instead of a metal one. It’s also much more square than rectangular.
Next up is the planning and permitting process. After that, I’ll cover the energy modeling and engineering. Then, I’ll go over what kind of plans you will have and how to interpret them. I did not find it easy to understand the structural plan, so I’ll go over what I learned the hard way.
Only after all that will we start on the actual build.
As I mentioned before, if you want to see this build happen in real-time, then check me out on Instagram (@granworks). I post stories nearly every day I work on the house and regular posts relatively frequently.
And thank you so much for reading this far!
Want to see this in video form? You’re in luck, as I finally started up the video series for this build, as well.