Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Economics 101 - Advanced Framing Techniques

Welcome back class to my lecture series on designing an economical to build house. I am your professor, Dr. Istockhouseplans. Last week we talked about designing a house that made good use of the 4' building material size and it's subsets, 24", 16", and 12". This week we'll talk a little more about advanced framing techniques to save even more money and time.

What are advanced framing techniques? They are a set of rules recognized by the International Residential Code as equivalent to standard construction. These rules lessen the amount of studs and headers that go in walls. They allow for more insulation. They make for homes that are easier to keep cool in summer and warm in winter.

The first AFT to consider is using studs not at 16" on center, but 24". 2x6 framing studs at 24" o.c. will support a 2-story house. So why do so many builders use studs at 16" o.c.? Because tradition runs deep. In fact, this tradition has been so ingrained into builders that many of them believe a house framed at 24" o.c. will be too flimsy. They couldn't be more wrong. The 'flimsiness' of a house has nothing to do with the spacing of the studs and everything to do with bracing. Framing at 24" o.c. allows for less studs, less nails, and a higher insulation to stud area, or less cold bridges. Cold bridges occur wherever insulation is not.

The second AFT is to not use 2x studs as wallboard backers where wall intersections occur. In a standard 3-stud corner, there is always an air pocket that insulation will either not fill, or fill under compression. Insulation can't do it's job when it is compressed. A better alternative is to use 1x backers, or even better, drywall stops. Drywall stops are easy to install and allow drywall floating along edges to reduce later cracking that comes with the house settling.

The third AFT has to do with headers. Why framers and designers feel compelled to put 4x12's over every single exterior wall opening, I do not know. Many openings could be supported with a 2x12 or even no header at all. Consider if your joists are running parallel to a window opening. You already are effecting a header with no tributary load. Why put another one in? That is a waste of time, lumber, and nails. If designers would take the time to call out 2x12 headers or no header required, millions of board feet of lumber a year could be saved, and thousands of manhours could be saved.

Headers create unnecessary cold bridges. When placing a 4x12 header in a 2x6 wall, there is a 2" void that can be filled with insulation. Using a 2x12 header will allow for more insulation. If no header is needed and it is less than 24" from the top plate, the whole space can be insulated without needing cripple studs.

Last week we discussed shifting doors and windows to use existing studs a king stud. If the opening is 3' wide (for most doors and some windows), no jack stud is needed and a framing clip can be used to support the header if one is even needed. Even with 6' openings, a little pre-thought can avoid a situation where 3 or 4 studs are next to each other creating a 6" cold bridge. Some framing clips require the use of 3x studs, but even this is better than 2 or 3 2x studs. The one problem would be availability of 3x material and being careful to use them at openings and only openings.

Despite how carefully you stick-frame a house, there will still be cold-bridges. You can reduce the effects of these even further by double sheathing your house. Sheath once with 7/16" OSB or plywood, then again with 1/2" poly foam boards. The foam will break the cold bridges. Most siding can be installed even over 1/2" of foam insulation, though you should check your local building code and manufacturer's requirements beforehand.

When insulating the house, be sure that batts in walls are face stapled to the studs. This reduces cold pockets and keeps the batts from slumping in their cavities. Rather than insulating attic floors to R-38, consider insulating the rafters or truss top plate with R-30. Though you will use a little more insulation, R-30 is cheaper and will offset the cost. Not only that, but you gain insulated space for storage or running ductwork.

Thanks for your attentiveness and willingness to learn. Next week we'll start breaking in to the interior design world and talk about placement and usage of rooms. For next week, please review the advanced framing techniques and try to run a cost estimate on a houseplan using both standard and advanced framing.

Class dismissed.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

New houseplan alert

The Foster 2 has been added to the istockhouseplans lineup. The Foster 2 is a duplex form of the Foster. The Foster 2 is designed for a corner lot, each entrance facing a different street. The entire building is designed to look like one house that could fit into any older neighborhood. At 40' wide, it should fit on most any 50' lot. Each side is 1564 square feet with three beds, two baths, and a bit of flair.

Come see all the houseplans, order away, and be happy. Remember, shipping is free, and we didn't even jack up the price of the plans to make up for it.

Economics 101 - Planning the House

Welcome class to Economics 101. I'm your professor, Dr. Istockhouseplans. Today we'll be talking about poor house design and how you can avoid it.

The first thing to consider is the footprint of your house. While concrete can be molded into any shape or dimension, you need to consider that your framing and sheathing will be based off of this dimension. The easiest house to create would be a box. But you can't just choose any dimension for the size of your box. If you're truly trying to be economical, remember that most building material works off of a repetition of four feet. Would a dimension of 25' by 32'-6" make sense? Of course not! Anybody who thought this would be economical gets an 'F'. If you are going to save money, a 24' by 32' box is an excellent choice. However, mind your square footage, as this would be a rather smallish house, even at 2 stories.

You might believe (and rightly so) that a box would make a rather boring house. Suppose you would like to add some offsets. There are two ways to do this: one is to jog the foundation, keeping in mind your material parameters. The other way involves cantilevering the house over the foundation. Both methods are acceptable. Question?

"I want to add a fireplace bumpout, but four feet seems like an awful lot!"

Excellent question, please come sit at my feet and learn. There are three subsets of the 4' increment. One is the obvious 2' division. Two feet would make an adequate bumpout for a fireplace, but let us suppose that you have a tight setback to consider. In this case, you can use the second subset of 16", or one third of 4'. While 16" may seem a little odd, this is the standard spacing of studs that most builders use. A third subset is the 1' increment. While this last subset won't cause construction waste, use it sparingly. It can cause you to use more materials.

You may wonder if it is more economical to cantilever your bumpouts or pour a foundation under them. If the bumpout is not large it is ALWAYS better to cantilever unless there are extenuating circumstances. Extenuating circumstances are rare.

I mentioned the offset earlier as a way to bring volume to your box. This would also be known as a jog in the foundation. Jogs can follow the same increments as previously mentioned. However, keep in mind that each jog in a foundation costs more money to build, so use them sparingly.

Any questions so far? No? Good.

Floors are built upon the foundations. There are several floor systems, and a good foundation will accomodate all types. To do so, the 4' increment is ideal. The post and beam (AKA post and pier) style of floor utilizes floor beams running every 4' on center. The joist (AKA crawl space) style of floor depends on joists running every 16" or 12" on center. If your floor is 39 feet deep, you will use 31 joists at 16" on center. You can also build a 40' deep building using the same number of joists. You gain more square footage for the same amount of money. Also consider your joist support spacing. Beams 9' apart are less helpful than beams 8' apart. A 12' span is easy to cross and requires no cutting of joists.

Every house needs openings in the walls. These openings contain windows and doors. Most designers only place doors and windows so as to look aesthetically pleasing from the inside. If you can line up your opening so that one or both edges land on the 16" increment, this will save money, both in materials and time. Most openings are framed with 2 extra studs on each side. If one of these studs can be the same as a standard framing stud, you have saved money. Most openings need to be topped with a header of some sort. This header is 3 or 4" longer than the opening is wide. Therefore a 4' window will use a 4'-4" header. If all of your windows are 4' wide, you will end up wasting lumber with a bunch of 4'-4" cuts. Taking these from a 16' beam will leave you with 3'. This cannot be used for your front door. Taking these from a 20' beam will leave you with 2'-8". This makes good firewood.

"Can't I throw the 2'-8" remainder over a bathroom door?"

Excellent question. Yes, as long as you actually need bearing over your bathroom door. If your bathroom door is not in a bearing wall, this is just hiding your waste and uses extra nails and studs.

At the roof, the final test of your design skills plays out. If your roof is to be trussed, those trusses will set at 24" on center, not including gable end overhangs. If your house is 32' deep, you've done well. If your house is 32'-6", you have used an extra truss for very little extra square footage. Bad form. If you are stick-framing the roof, 16" is a better increment to keep in mind, but this will depend on the distances being spanned and the lumber being used. If you are stick framing the roof, keep in mind the length of the rafters. If your pitch is such that your rafters need to be 20'-8", this is poor planning. Either narrow your building or drop your pitch. The same concept applies to the roof sheathing. If you need 20'-8" of roof sheating from eave to peak, this is wasteful.

Not all concepts presented can be effectively used on every house designed. You will be able to use most of the techniques most of the time. There's the bell, for next week, design a houseplan using as many techniques presented as possible. Aesthetic is not important this time, but function is. If you need to, check out some examples.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Something old, something new.

I'll try to stay calm, but no guarantees. As I was browsing through the Sunday paper's real estate section, I couldn't help but cringe. All the new houses for sale were astonishing. And not just the number of them, but the price tag. And not just the price tag, but the amount of house and lack of lot. And not just that, but the LOOK! What happened to craftsmanship? What happened to a love for the job? Why is it all about building as little as possible and selling for as much as possible? I don't think I can take it anymore.

These 3000sf homes on 6000sf lots are selling for $400,000. Do you know what they're composed of? Inefficient building techniques that are overcompensated with by an oversized HVAC system that will fail in three years. On top of that, the houses are built so tight that they can't breathe which means condensation issues in the walls and ceilings which leads to mold, mildew, and dry-rot. Besides that, the houses are so close to the neighbors that you really don't care for all the windows on the side of the house, nor do you feel like you have any privacy in your backyard. On top of that, the entire subdivision is composed of three houseplans, each mirrored or with a different facade to show some variety.

What makes the facade different? Some stone or trim. But it's not just any stone. It's cultured stone. Know what that means? Fake. The stone is manufactured out of concrete or plaster at about 2 inches thick and then glued to the side of the house. And the trim is just an afterthought. Some of these houses attempt to look like throwbacks to an earlier era, but I just want to throw them back. It's like taking a Geo Metro and trying to put BMW badges and tinted windows on it.

Alright, maybe every subdivision isn't that bad. Some actually show variety in houseplans. A few attempt to blend into the landscape rather than tearing down all the trees. Kudos to the builders who work around 50' tall fir, oak, and pine trees. Kudos to the builders who build every home as they would their own. Kudos to the builders who build 7 different plans on 20 lots.

And kudos to the builder who buys from istockhouseplans. We don't want to say our plans are better but they are different. We strive for economy both in building and living. We don't like to max out a building lot. If you don't like our plans because they aren't big enough, luxurious enough, or trendy enough, then we don't mind. There are hundreds of other designers out there who would be happy to have your business. For us, satisfaction comes not on a bottom line, but in seeing our homes built knowing that we haven't compromised our principles.

Please check out our line of models. We have just posted a 2-car garage series to add to our one car plans. We have 16 house plans available with ten more in the works. And in case you aren't yet convinced, our plans are cheaper than the competition. Just so you know.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

House envy, or, Does size really matter?

Your contractor tells you that size matters. After all, he drives around the biggest pickup truck available. Your wife tells you that she actually likes it smaller. Your friends are somewhere in between. Can you really live your life knowing that yours is in the bottom 25th percentile?

Why big is good:

  • Show off

  • Store a bunch of crap

  • Less grass to mow

Why small is good:

  • Cheaper to own

  • Less maintanence

  • Less crowding

OK, so we're biased. We may not have the biggest one on the block, but we know how to use it. It's comfortable, it fits well, and we're used to it. Oh yeah, sometimes we'd like to be a few sizes bigger, and maybe someday we will, but for now we like what we have.

The average size has increased double from 1950 to 2000, while the number of folks using it has dropped 25%. More to go around? Maybe more greed? And all the while, they know how to use it less and less and so much is wasted. Sometimes parts or even the whole thing goes unused for quite a while. Then one day you'll hear, "What is THIS down here!?", or, "How did THAT get there?". Come on, get a grip. Do you really need to live life like this?

But there is help. First, own up to what you have. Second, learn how to use it properly. Third, maintain it in tip-top condition. Hopefully you will get to a place where you are happy with your lot in life and not try to strive after what others have. At the end of day, it's not about who gets to go home to what, but about how big a mess you have to clean up.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

What's inside?

You may not have had a chance to view the website yet, so we'll give you a quick overview. There are currently 24 plans available. Twelve are single family homes, 4 are multi-family, 2 are mini accessory dwellings (ADU), 6 are garages. Of the single family homes, only 3 have attached garages. Two of the multi-family are garaged. Two of the garage plans have bonus space, one of which is a 500sf apartment.

Plans are varied between 2 full stories and 1-1/2 stories. One and a half stories tend to have a lower street profile. Most plans are in the 1800-2000 square foot range, though there are some that duck down to 1368. The ADU units are in the 500-600 square foot range.

Most of the plans have classic external features. These include large barge boards on gable ends, generous overhangs (18-24" is typical), interesting use of materials, exposed rafter tails, full chimneys (even if they are false) and wrapped porch columns.

Inside we have made use of several classic examples. Represented are exposed beam ceilings, tapered columns, built-ins (benches, shelves and a vanity), arched openings, and even a secret passageway or two.

For all their throwback appearance, most plans are modern in their flow. We have used a general formula, that is: front entry porch; bedroom and bath on the first floor; formal dining next to the kitchen; bedroom and bath upstairs (formal master); laundry upstairs.

Why the statistics? Hopefully they'll interest you enough to check out the site. Or they'll bore you to death and you'll just go straight to our site in order to avoid another second of excruciating numbers and facts.

Either way, we all win.