Yes You Can!…Build your own Refuge

I want to apologize, once again, to all those that I owe emails to. April, I know I owe you and Tess and others emails. But I have been tied up, almost literally, with this latest house. I will show you where we are and how easy it can be to build you own home/cabin. It is easier than you think.

Here you can see we used railroad ties for piers and beams.

Rule Number One: Start with a good foundation. It is up to you, based on economics, demographics, geography and geology whether or not you use a concrete slab or a pier and beam. Most, not all, of my houses are pier and beam. There are several reasons for this. Naturally, the first has to be cost. At $100.00/cu. yd. (cubic yard)of concrete, a pier and beam home looks fairly attractive. Also, another thing that goes in favor of the pier and beam home is that you will not have a fleet of concrete trucks beating a path to your door along with the team of concrete finishers that you would have to pay if you cannot finish concrete. You can build your cabin/home in privacy. But regardless, it is your decision. I go with privacy first. Pier and beam homes are very comfortable for Von and I and we use the below house space to dry our garlic, onions, herbs etc. and some other practical applications that I feel should remain unknown. (You’ll figure it out.)

Second: like the old saying goes, “size is not important.” Do you really need that 4 bedroom/3 bath half million dollar monster now worth $250,000? Rural property on the other hand is increasing in value. A small house that I built several years ago, with the land, cost less than $30K. It was appraised in October 2011 at $84K. Why? People are getting older, and looking for rural property to retire, cyber-commuting is more common, people are tired of watching their neighborhoods deteriorate, tired of crime and who knows, maybe some are moving to the country because of the Mayan Calendar publicity or the planet NIbiru is going to hit the Earth. (If the world is going to end, how will moving to the country protect you? Oh well.)

As I have mentioned in other articles, I believe, and this is from experience, that a family can be comfortable and enjoy life based on 150-200 square feet(sq.ft.)/ person. Many people have that much room rented at a Stor-N-Lok filled with stuff they will never use. (Rule of thumb: if you haven’t used it in two years you’re not going to.) And, this is on top of the things that fill their garages, attics and basements.  I have news for some folks, “He who dies with the most toys, is just dead! Period! Sell the junk and use that money to add to your preparations or to buy the land for your retreat.

Number Three: the real estate maxim, “location, location, location” has many meanings. One of the implied meanings is that the price of what you are buying will be artificially high because other people are being told just like you that “It’s perfect for you, “Close to your work, only a 45 minute commute”, “you’ll grow into it”, “excellent schools nearby” and on and on. Drivel. Rural schools are still some of the best in the country. Our local school has a rifle team and competes statewide. How about your school? I know that this is just one example but is the type of thing in rural school systems that sets them apart. The Junior Livestock Auction in our small community routinely raises in excess of $100K a year for kids to go to college.

The  next meaning for the “location maxim” is that while I find southeast Texas and Four Corners New Mexico ideal for my purposes, you may not. You may prefer Kansas, Idaho, Montana or Kentucky. If you really are planning to relocate based on a survival strategy buy Joel Skousen’s excellent book “Strategic Relocation, (3rd ed.). It is for sale at many places on the internet. It is pricey but it may help you avoid making a serious mistake.

“Okay, Codger, you’ve convinced me. I’m moving to Moose Snout, Idaho. What is next.”

After determining that Moose Snout is the ideal location for you and your family and you plan on building your own home, contact local builders associations, building inspectors, contractors and ask them what the best type of construction is suited for the area. There may be a reason for this type of construction, i.e. it is the warmest, easiest to build, local materials are readily available and, yes, some rural states have building codes that specify types of construction.

Framing the subfloor.

In the first photo you can see that I used railroad ties for my piers and beams. I could buy them locally at a great price. We sank them 5′ in the ground, bolted them together with steel plates, (that is what my nephew Brandon is doing in the top picture) and then we framed the subfloor on top of these. As you can tell by the photo the subfloor decking was recycled from a house that we tore down for the materials.

This is the actual subfloor. You can see the framing and the decking.

After you have framed and decked the subfloor you can begin building the walls. They are a couple of strategies you can use to build your walls. First, I always build them on the subfloor or foundation and raise them into place. This is much easier than building them and moving them any distance at all. Second, if I have a couple of fresh bodies, I build the wall in its entirety and raise it complete. Third, if it is just Von and I then we build the walls in sections that are easy for us to handle, raise them, anchor them to the foundation or subloor and then repeat the process until each wall is

All bodies were needed to raise the walls and no one left to take the photo.

finished. My rule of thumb for handling walls is, I can raise a 12′ section by myself or with Von’s help and then she anchors the wall section while I hold it. Everything I build has at least a 6″ thick wall. If you build with 2″x4″s you are wasting money, unless you live on a tropical island.

What appears to be a long table in the photo above is actually several shipping frames for tractors. I use these for workbenches. If you click on the picture to enlarge it, you will see that we are laminating 2-2″x12″s with a piece of plywood cut to the same dimension. In other words, we are making a sandwich with 2″x12″s and a piece of plywood will be the meat. Then they are glued together and allowed to dry (24hrs.). I used Liquid Nails for the bonding agent. I like it, it is moderately priced, strong and readily available but you may prefer something else. We are doing this to produce a strongback.

Here yo can see the strongback at the right, the ceiling joist tied to it and then the bridge bracing to support the rafters.

What is a strongback? It is a central support that will provide support and stability for the ceiling joists, rafters and roof. Since I made the strongback so thick, I had to use joist hangers to tie the ceiling joist to the strongback. (Note: in all the pictures you will see straps hanging from the wood. These straps were used to hold the front-end loaders to the pallets so they could be shipped and assembled with the tractor at the dealership. Most dealerships will beg or even pay you to haul the wood off.)

Once you have your strongback and ceiling joists in place you can begin installing the rafters, that will actually support the roof, and then install the bridge bracing that will provide

Sorry about picture clarity but you can still see that the rafters are now up.

strength and stability to the rafters. I know all of these terms sound complicated but they are not. Most are local terminology and may not be used in your area. Our crew consisted of my best friend Teddy, 11 year-old nephew Brandon, grandson Alex, Von and myself. With this small crew we built everything you see in these photos, with the exception of the floor, in five days. Not bad for three senior citizens and 2 kids, if I may say so myself.

Here you can see more detail on the bridge bracing and a lot more straps!

In the photo on the left you can see the center bridge bracing and bracing going off to the left. The bracing for the right side had not gone in when this photo was taken.

Now, I know what you carpenters are going to say when you see this picture. “You have your strongback in the wrong place!” No, I don’t. I made two strongbacks, split the width into three sections using them and then tied them together with my ceiling joists. Why did I do it that way? Simple, all my two by sixes were less than ten feet long and the house was 26′ wide. By using two strongbacks the longest two by sixes I needed, the center section, were 108″ long. I had to adapt the building to the wood that was available. 

What comes next? The decking or often called sheeting, sheating or sheathing. This will provide a

The decking is nailed to the rafters.

platform to hold your roofing material, which in this case is steel roofing. Once again, I apologize for the poor quality of picture taken here but it is the best I can do at times to find the correct button for the camera on my phone.

It is not necessary but I always place 30# roofing felt on the decking before I add the roofing. It is cheap insurance that there will not be a leak in your new roof.  There are numerous styles and colors of metal roofing you can use. Today some of the roofing even looks like red tile roofing. Unfortunately, we did not have a choice. The roofing being used was purchased from the U.S.

Alex putting the final touches on the roof.

government at auction for $300.00. It had never been used, had the manufacturers name on the shipping label and the manufacturer will even warranty the roofing for the full 20 years.

What happens next? The outer sheathing is next. Once you have the outer sheathing, roof, windows and doors in place you are now “in the dry”. It is now Margarita time. If it rains, everything will be protected. “Getting in the dry” is a very

You can see Alex attaching the exterior sheathing which in this case in 7/16″ CDX.

important step to protect your materials from damage or deterioration. If you have to stop working on the house, for any reason, it will be reasonably protected from damage.

As you can see we used 7/16″ CDX for the exterior sheathing and on top of this we will place “Hardie” board. Hardie board looks like thin plywood but what is actually consists of is fiber, a bonding agent and cement. It is very heavy to work with, lasts for 50 years or more and is flame proof. This is a big plus if you are building in an area of the country that suffers from wildfires. Hardie Board can be ordered plain, pre-primed or “painted”. The painted Hardie Board is not painted at all. It actually has the color imbedded in the material. You will never have to paint your house again.

What comes next? In the case of this house, the floor. I had taken it upon myself to produce a one of a kind floor that Von could be proud of. I

Planing each board before it is set in place.

planned to produce it from my most common asset: 2″x6″ lumber. First we had to pick the straightest lumber, pull the nails and countless staples holding the straps and then each board had to be planed. After the boards were planed, they had to be individually cut and fitted into its proper place. Could we have accomplished this faster and with less trouble? Of course we could have but I wanted a one of a kind floor. And, if you will look closely at the next few photos you will see what I accomplished, although it was six months in the making. What you

The beginning of the floor in one corner.

will see in the next photograph is the beginning of the floor on a 40 degree by 50 degree matrix. This is due to the 26′ x 32′ size of the house. The next two photos will show you the final finished product before any type of finish or sealer is added. I will wait for a few days to add the polyurethane sealer to protect the surface of the wood. The areas susceptible to the most moisture invasion, the bathroom and the kitchen will receive a coat of FamoWood which is a 2-part epoxy that will not only seal the wood but bond it into a solid unit.

Hopefully you will be able to see in the photo on the right the various levels of contrast in the wood in addition to the multiple angles that make this floor one of a kind. Like I stated earlier, this floor is done on a 40 degree by 50 degree matrix that ends up producing a diamond in the central setting. What looks like waves or bumps in the boards are due to the various types of wood and their corresponding colors. Take a close look at the next photo and you will see what I mean by the various shades in the

Here you can see the various textures, colors and grains of the woods used in the final floor.

wood that makes up the final floor.

Now i know you are dying to ask, “Is this really necessary for my retreat? No! Absolutely not. This is not even my retreat but my latest house in southeast Texas. Will it help the resale value? Nah, the next guy will probably put carpet over the whole damn thing. No, this was a promise I made to my wife to give her a floor that was one of a kind.

Okay Codger, what is next? Well, I would say that the next step is to add the interior walls, electrical, plumbing and then sheetrock. As you can see from the next photo I have

The electrical distribution panel and the wiring was salvaged from another house that I was paid to tear down. Get the picture yet?

already added my insulation and have already begun my electrical installation. Next, I will begin my interior walls. But, I have hit a snag. I know you will not believe this, but I have hit the same snag 3 times in a row. Alright, I know what you are saying, “fool me once, shame on you, fool me twice shame on me! Right? Well, it is not that easy. I swear that what you are seeing is the persistent efforts of the same bird. This little bird has invaded my last three construction projects, at the same time of year and done the same thing each time. The Momma bird flies in from the open soffits, builds a warm comfortable nest in the insulation and each time I have to wait for her babies to learn to fly before I can finish my house. I hate being

Don’t you just hate it when you are outsmarted by a birdbrain?

outsmarted by a bird each time that I build.

Is this a plot by the New World Order? No, it is a simple fact of nature. I have at least 2 to 3 weeks before the babies learn to leave the nest and fly. Last time I had to pick up each of her chicks and hold them in my hand and let them learn to fly by jumping from my hand. When the babies fly away I will add the sheetrock to the walls, once the electrical and plumbing are finished. After the interior is complete I will finish the exterior by adding the Hardie Board. After that I will add a screened porch to both the front and rear. But until then, I am on hold for my greatest fan and her family to fly away.

Can you build your own retreat? Yes, of course you can. Is it easy? Hell no, it takes a lot of work. Oh, by the way, my total outlay for a 32′ x 26′ home will be about $3000.00. Yes, I know it only has one bathroom and two bedrooms but hey, I have no mortage, it is paid for and there is no lien holder. Bet that half million dollar home is not looking quite so good, even though it is only worth $250,000.00.

Sorry, I did not mean to be mean but my final bill is $5,000 for a little over two and a half acres of land and @ $3000.00 for my materials. So for a total of @ $8000.00 I have a home that is paid for, 2.5+ acres of land and no mortgage. What is that worth to you? Yes, You can do what I have described. Oh, one more thing, each time you move to another house you can rent the others out. This will help you pay that $5,000.00/mo. note on your house, that is unless the other guy or gal reads this and decides to build their own home.

Recommended reading:

Housebuilding: A Do-It Yourself Guide by R. J. Cristoforo

p.s. just hurry up and beat the bird before it  builds a nest in the insulation in the spring.

Good luck and God bless.

4 thoughts on “Yes You Can!…Build your own Refuge

  1. CC –

    What a well-presented, fascinating, and (for me) inspiring read … complete with pictures. I have questions, of course, but I probably should/will acquire the book by Cristoforo you referenced, and also perhaps convey some of my thoughts to you via your private e-mail address, if that is acceptable. You are swamped, I surely recognize, but there is no hurry in replying … if at all.

    Much thanks, again, for your ongoing, extensive assistance, support and love (yes … I said it) contributed to us neophyte “preppers.”

    Warmest regards,


  2. I’m currently preparing to build a large dessert cabin in California. Aside from fencing off the lot I needed clarity and order. So I googled my first idea, which was a pier and beam foundation and I found this article. This is almost exactly want to do with my 2.58 acres! Thanks. For sharing.

    Pastor Ken Jackson

    • Thanks Ken for stopping by my site. I’m glad I could help. My back porch became a washroom, walk-in pantry and walk-in closet. Since the corona virus insanity hit I have been spending more time in my cabin in the mountains of western New Mexico and updating it. Good luck with your project and hope that it goes very well for you.

      • Thanks, this has been on my heart for many years. I only paid $3999 for the lot. Your story answered a lot of questions for me. My absolute first thought was for a pier and beam foundation was railroaded ties for piers. I hadn’t planned on going so deep but why not 5’?. Great idea. Thanks again

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