The Complete Guide to Country Living

Book One
Designing and building the homestead

by
Gene GeRue
author of
How To Find Your Ideal Country Home
and many friends

ISSN: 1528-8056

Copyright 2008 Gene GeRue
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Overview of Book One
1. Observation
2. Making the plan
3. Drawing a map
4. Action sequence
5. Utilities overview
6. Water system
7. Waste handling
8. Electricity
9. Heating and cooling
10. Communication
11. Construction overview
12. Tools and equipment
13. Roads and bridges
14. Homes
15. Climate considerations
16. Materials considerations
17. Safety considerations
18. Fire, wind, earthquake
19. Stairs
20. Railings
21. Cost considerations
22. Energy efficiency
23. Design
24. Drawing plans
25. Building a model
26. Construction
27. Outbuildings
28. Fences and walls
29. Maintenance
Bibliography

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Overview of Book One: Designing and building the homestead

It is most unlikely that you will buy a property that is perfect for your desires and needs. If you buy a place with a dwelling, you will be lucky if the house is ideal for your family and also in the best location on the land. This book will be useful whether there are existing buildings or whether you have purchased bare land. You will learn how to assess all the attributes of your property, how to make a master plan, and how to build a home and outbuildings from local materials.

About spacing. If you build a kitchen garden fifty feet too far from your kitchen door and only visit the garden twice each day you will walk 150 unnecessary miles each decade, in sunshine and rain, calm or high wind. If your climate includes real winters and you learn how to enjoy year-round fresh food, some of those miles will be on snow and ice. If you build your garage, tool room, or henhouse out too far, you will get plenty of extra exercise when you are young, too much when you are old. And in an emergency, you will run farther to conquer the problem.

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1. Observation

If you are beginning with unimproved land I urge you to spend one full year observing the property before building. Camp out. A tent will let you feel the weather best. A used camping trailer may be sold for the purchase price after you have used it for a couple years. Walk the land in all kinds of weather. Notice sun aspect, intensity, movement. Witness rain patterns and volume. Observe drainage patterns. Learn the history of floods by searching for detritus along stream banks. Discover which springs flow year-round and which are seasonal. Keep a journal. Record summer and winter winds. Inventory trees, shrubs, grasses, flowers and weeds; they indicate soil and climate conditions and are your inventory of timber, firewood, natural pastures. Make a list of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish. Inspect and test soils. Identify rock types and availability for building purposes. Discover microclimates where you might grow plants not otherwise suitable to your zone.

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2. Making the plan

Safety first. Consider fire, flood, high winds.

Buildings and gardens and animal quarters, optimal distance placement creates efficiency of driving, walking, and moving feed and other materials. When you are young you will save time. When you are old you will save your legs and your back. Put animal quarters well downwind from house and garden so that odors and flies are less likely to diminish mealtime pleasure.

You may read advice to build your house on the worst land, the most unusable for other purposes. Donât knee-jerk on this unless you have very little usable land. Garden location should be chosen first because thatâs where most of your food will come from and where you will spend a lot of your time. The optimal location for the main garden is on fertile, well-drained soil with a slight slope to the southeast and downhill from a water source. The house follows the vegetable garden, should be within steps of the garden, which is ideally just outside the back door. The fruit orchard need not be a separate entity; fruit trees scattered throughout the garden and the home circle area work fine, will be safer from deer, coons, possums, may be less vulnerable to insects.

Aspect. Most food growing benefits from a full-sun southern exposure. There is an exception: peaches and apricots on a north slope have delayed budding, which may save fruit sets from late frosts. A vegetable garden on a southeast slope warms most quickly in the morning, suffers less from late afternoon rays. Protection from searing afternoon sun is also a need for houses and animal quarters.

Ultimate sizes of trees, shade patterns.
Your master plan will include trees. Deciduous trees close to the house provide summer shade, slightly filtered sun after the leaves drop. Trees that allow most winter sun through them are   ; those whose bare branches block the most sun are  .

Permaculture, making everything work together, one item provides multiple benefits. Synergism. A retaining wall gathers rainfall, protects downhill structures from water damage, creates a growing bed, provides beauty.

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3. Drawing a map

Obtain a topographic map that includes your property from the United States Geological Survey, 1-888-ASK-USGS. Scan and enlarge the map or take it to a business service with a copy machine that makes enlargements. Print enlarged copies of the part of the map that shows your property. Use a soft pencil to draw existing roads, streams, springs, bridges, buildings, fences, walls, gardens, fields. Draw tree outlines as they will be when mature. You can shade tree and shrub outlines with a green lead pencil and still be able to see building, path, road, fence lines within.

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4. Action sequence

The advantages of logical progression. Build roads, develop water, get electricity, plant fruit and shade trees, plant fruit bushes and vines, build shop/storage building, start a kitchen garden, build house, build other outbuildings, enlarge garden, build fences, create pastures, acquire animals, improve woodlot, plant more trees, improve landscaping. Relax and enjoy.

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5. Utilities overview

Backup/multiple/redundant systems for water, heating, electricity make for more peaceful sleep, less stress when storms stop local systems.



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6. Water system

Springs, wells, ponds, streams, gravity, pumps: elect-AC & DC/ram/sling/manual, cisterns, ferrocement



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7. Waste handling

Septic=potential pollution. Composting=closed loop.

Most farmers and gardeners fertilize soil using manure from the many animals except humans. Because of our diet, humanure is unsurpassed in nutrients. Asians have used it for thousands of years. Generations of families using flush toilets have resulted in psychological negativity--the yuck factor. So humanure is mostly wasted and goes into sewage treatment plants or septic systems, causing much unnecessary expense and pollution of groundwater. The most commonsense treatment of humanure is to collect it, compost it, and then use it for fertilizer for ornamentals and those plants that fruit above-ground: fruit trees, tomatoes, peppers, beans and the like. Humanure composted for a year is indistinguishable from rich soil.

Get a clean, strong, sound five-gallon plastic bucket with a good bale. The enclosure can be a simple pine box into which the bucket will fit and stay in place. If the box ends up quite a bit larger than the bucket, install some strips at the bottom to keep the bucket in place. Make a hinged, solid wood top, then cut out the hole slightly larger than the opening of a standard toilet seat. Install the toilet seat. For zero odor, install a vent. Cut a hole in the back of the box up high into which a four-inch piece of PVC will fit snugly. I put an ell there, then a straight piece of pipe that goes up into a well ventilated attic space. I enclosed the PVC vent pipe with cedar, which is what the bathroom is paneled in. At the top of the pipe, put another ell and aim it at the downwind attic vent. Into that top pipe I installed a bisquit fan, which uses very little electricity--less than a penny per day--but moves enough air to keep a positive upward air movement. I wired the fan to a switch near the toilet. If the back of the toilet is placed against an outside wall, just use one piece of pipe and go straight out the back and through the wall. That's how I did the one upstairs in the guest room, but it goes into the same well ventilated attic. If the pipe exits into the outdoors, I would provide some protection against wind and water intrusion, like an ell pointed downwards. The fan can be placed right behind the toilet box. I put mine as far from the toilet as possible to lessen the fan sound, which is unnoticeable during the daytime but on a quiet country night you can hear even a faint hum. Fans are available from old computers. I bought mine from Edmund Scientifics--1-800-728-6999; e-mail scientifics@edsci.com.

After I empty the bucket and hose it out I start the new batch with a few handsful of oak leaves and a bit of garden soil. After each use, a handful of sawdust or planer chips is tossed on. Peat moss would be perfect. If you don't want to compost and use the humanure, just dig a hole under a tree that looks like it could use some nourishment, dump it there, cover with soil. I would put something over the excavation area to discourage animals from digging it up and thereby scattering toilet tissue. In ten days or so of summer weather the contents will have become unrecognizable due to soil microbial action. In freezing weather you will need a hole dug ahead of time.

I got a bit fancy with our two bucket toilets. Both are made of solid wood blocks, one a piece of a white oak tree with the bark left on and the other a chunk of black walnut from which I drawknifed the bark, then used a belt sander to get down to pretty wood. I used a chainsaw to hollow out the blocks. Be very careful if you do this as the tendency is for the chain bar to jump up in your face when you do the plunge cuts.

One last thought, on height. Evacuation is more easily accomplished in a position that is closer to a squat than modern toilets allow unless you put a footstool in front of them. I used buckets that are short enough so that the toilet seat is lower than the standard.

Recommended book:
The Toilet Papers by Sim Van der Ryn. Includes history, health facts, plans for outhouse, dry toilets, compost privies, greywater systems.Van der Ryn is Emeritus Professor of Architecture at the University of California, Berkeley, where he has taught since 1961. His designs for homes, sustainable communities, retreat centers, schools, commercial buildings have received many awards.

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8. Electricity: PV versus the grid

Costs, payback period, installation, maintenance, considerations. Energy-efficient appliances. Propane versus electricity. Gas refrigerators.

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9. Heating and cooling

Energy efficiency principles.

Solar heating. You can save half or more of your heating costs with a passive solar system. Most solar designs include standard energy efficient construction factors: insulation and airtightness. Here in the northern hemisphere, we position the building so the longest dimension faces south. Put most windows on that south front. Build the eaves so they admit winter sun but shade the windows and walls in the summer. Build as much mass into the interior of the house as possible. Mass is concrete, stone, brick, plaster, tile, and soil. When winter sun shines through the windows it creates heat. Much of the heat is assimilated by cementitious materials during daytime hours and emitted into the living space during the cooler nighttime. Roof venting and radiant barrier, north wall berming, the best windows you can afford. Passive solar heating has no downsides in climates that require heating systems.  It is essentially free, is sustainable, is nonpolluting, provides most comfortable heat, although I admit that the primary complaint of passive solar home occupants is of too much heat. You may have to open a couple of windows on a sunny January day.
A huge bonus of solar design is that your house will be cooler in summer. Roof overhang shades windows, insulation and tightness keeps the coolth of mass, roof venting cools ceilings. Open your windows at night, close them in morning.

Find a winter solar "calculator." Mine is the edge of the porch roof and the house wall. At the winter solstice I marked the shadow. Measured the distance from roof edge to house and then down to the shadow. That gave me my design angle. Tough, huh?

Wood heat. Fuel is home produced and sustainable, but polluting if many houses are close to each other. A typical wood stove does not require electricity, a bonus for areas of chronic electric outages. Uses high skill and labor requirements to select and fell trees, limb, cut blocks, split, load, stack, tend stove. A chainsaw is the most dangerous tool.

Propane is the typical gas in rural areas. Check with your local gas company for costs, rules, suggestions. Tanks may be rented or purchased. Modern propane heaters are very efficient.

Electric heat is cleanest of all except solar, but it is usually the most costly and least sustainable. Heat pumps make the most sense where the heat source is the ground or a body of water. Heat pumps also produce summertime hot water as a by-product of summer cooling mode.

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10. Communication

Gather your own news
by Vern Modeland

An important detail in preparing for anything is to know what is going on. If power goes out, the Internet crashes or the satellites that now provide us rural folks with much of our news and entertainment go away, or just as easily, become under control of some conglomerate or other power that doesn't want you to know something, or wants you to know only part of the picture, how will you "know what you have to know in order to know enough," as a song by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band says.

The compact table top and even pocket-sized radio receivers called "scanners" become important to the self-sustaining lifestyle in making sure that doesn't happen. Also, table top and portable radios that are capable of short wave reception as well as domestic. And, to make sure all of them are capable of running for hours on independent power, consider the packaged compact, rechargeable seven amp gel-cel batteries sold by companies like Whistler.

I think scanner radios are a "must." At home or when traveling. My reasons include the appalling lack of spot news gathering or reporting from local radio stations, which are now mostly automated and/or woefully understaffed and where staffed, woefully unprofessional. Besides, in a major emergency, they'd probably be off the air due to power loss of their own, for at least a short and important time anyway.

With a scanner radio, you can hear real-time your sheriff's dispatches, your emergency services, fire fighters, EMTs, 911 dispatchers, power company repair crews and a host of other sources that will keep you abreast of what is really going on and where. NOAA weather radio stations now are being even more automated than before due to cost reduction, so they can't be counted on to alert you to bad weather when you need the alert. In the Ozarks, where we live, in our last big storm, the NOAA weather radio was a full 30 minutes behind the weather front in its alert and descriptions. But our scanners were keeping us up to date with who was where and what roads were blocked, etc. Most parts of the country also have ham radio weather spotters or some other group that is out there describing conditions and directions and telling it like it is on radio frequencies within the range of even the most modest of scanner radios.

There are very good scanners from Uniden Bearcat and Radio Shack (made by Uniden) at relatively low prices. Local dealers and the manufacturers maintain lists of at least some local frequencies to listen to. New scanner radio models even allow you to program them to your locale by just entering your zip code or something equally as easy. And, almost all tune up through the 800 MHz bands that most public service radio systems have now
moved to. Some scanner radios also tune civil and military aviation and national guard frequencies.

A good reference for understanding and using scanner radios is "Monitoring Times," a monthly magazine from Grove Enterprises, Inc., Brasstown, NC. Another is "Popular Communications," a monthly magazine from CQ Communications, Inc., Hicksville, NY

For World Band (short wave) radio listening, Sony, Panasonic, Radio Shack and other brands less widely known in the United States such as AOR, Grundig, Sangean, Icom, Kenwood, mostly more expensive and full-featured, will let you "tune in the world," where London, Ottawa, Berlin, Moscow, Hilversum, Stockholm, Quito, Tokyo, Beijing, Sydney and most other capitals regularly broadcast in English--without commercials or the US "entertainment" spin on the news. They give you, as Paul Harvey likes to say, "The rest of the story," plus entertaining as well as informative glimpses into life and music from far away lands.

To help understand and use the World Band radio receivers, there are two excellent texts; "Passport To World Band Radio," published by International Broadcasting Services, Ltd., Penns Park, PA, and "The World Radio-TV Handbook," published by Gilfler Shortwave, Park Ridge. NJ

Why prepare for emergencies then not know what is going on before, during and after one happens? Why take what you hear on American radio and television to be complete, truthful or unbiased, when the major networks as well as print media, publishing, music and movie production, are controlled by a few corporate conglomerates?

I don't.

Note: Vern Modeland is a former media journalist and corporate/government communications specialist who now lives in semi-retirement in the Arkansas Ozarks.

Amateur Radio for the Self-reliant
by Vern Modeland

Amateur (Ham) Radio is a resource that affords both a sense of security and an exciting hobby. And, in the year 2000, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has made it even easier for Americans  to get a license and become a "ham."

Update: Feburary 2007 The FCC has removed all code requirements for all classes of amateur licenses.

Network or just visit with folks anywhere on the continent, even anywhere around the world, direct from your home or vehicle. Get answers to questions about how others are doing things, or, when you travel, about road conditions and the location of services. Or, through one of the amateur-built radio repeaters that now blanket much of this nation and lower Canada too, with generally strong and reliable signals, join in community weather watch groups and other public service projects. Join in roundtables with other folks with like interests who are hams. They gather and network on the airwaves regularly from breakfastime through the night. You also might come across high adventure as well as warm friendship from this hobby with its long history of public service. And, with amateur radio, you will not be relying on expensive and vulnerable relay services, such as phone networks or satellites to communicate. Amateur radio is a prime example of self-reliance.

Amateur radio users span all ages, interests and all walks of life. There is royalty (the former King Hussein of Jordan and Grand Lama of Tibet were "hams" found talking on the ham radio frequencies regularly), and there is celebrity (past and present music, broadcast and movie stars). If you haven't yet met a radio "ham" somewhere, (those tall towers and over-grown TV-like antennas are sometimes a giveaway), then perhaps the best way to get an idea of what amateur radio is all about is via the American Radio Relay League (ARRL). The ARRL is the fraternity of amateur radio and its largest membership organization in the U.S. Its publication, "Now You're Talking" will give a good overview. Publications, training videos and software can be previewed and requested at pubsales@arrl.org

To become a ham, you have to take a test. That's because amateurs share use of an international resource (the radio/TV spectrum) with global potential for interference as well as communication. Therefore a license is necessary, demonstrating that the holder has an understanding of rules and principals as well as accepted operating procedures. Amateur radio license examinations are administered by registered volunteer examiners. A visit to a Radio Shack or similar store, a Red Cross chapter, the library or to the civic club list keeper of any Chamber of Commerce can lead you to a local ham club meeting or someone who can point you in the right direction for help in becoming a ham. Many police or other public service officers also know one or more local "hams" or "ham clubs."

The license requirements, effective April 15, 2000, include being able to recognize and understand International Morse Code at a speed of 5 words a minute (65 characters copied accurately in 60 seconds) for classes other than entry level, which is called "Technician." Then there is a 35 question written multiple choice test for each of the Technician and General class licenses and 50 questions for the Amateur Extra class of license. The General and Extra class licenses allow using progressively more of the high frequency amateur bands that support direct long range communications. The Technician license is limited to only VHF (very high frequencies) very short radio waves that generally afford only local communication, plus use of amateur radio repeater stations that extend the limited VHF range.

For Canadians interested in the hobby, the ham organization in Canada is "Radio Amateurs of Canada." There are four steps to a Canadian license. The applicant must start by learning Basic qualifications but can take the others in any order. The Basic examination covers electronics, radio regulations and operating procedures and allows access to VHF only, without a Morse Code requirement. Canadian code examinations are 5 words per minute and 10 wpm. Passing them allows access to the nation- and globe-spanning high frequency ham bands. Passing an Advanced theory examination expands privileges even more. Most Canadian ham clubs have an Amateur Radio instructor and volunteer "Designated Examiners" for Industry Canada, the former Department of Communications.

Amateur radio equipment is as varied in price and quality as any electronics. A plus, however, is that ham radio sets don't depreciate like computers. Used but very serviceable ham radio transceivers can readily be found for a few hundred dollars. Equipment a dozen years old can still command half of its new price or more. Take an on-line trip to Amateur Electronic Supply (just one of many suppliers) for a free catalog showing the scope of equipment and accessories. Don't let the content overwhelm or deter you, though. You can "get on the air" simply, for as little as $100 or less for a hand held radio, set up operation in your car or home for maybe three times that--or spend whatever more you want.

The rewards in the hobby are in personal achievement, camaraderie and a sense of safety that CB, sometimes even cellular phones, won't be able to supply at any cost.

Vern Modeland WA0JOG

Updated by Don Bowen KI6DIU

Editor's note: Vern is a former media journalist and corporate/government communications specialist who now lives in semi-retirement in the Arkansas Ozarks.

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11. Construction overview

History, materials, sizes,
Alternative methods: stick built, green wood, log, cordwood, pole, post and beam, stone, adobe, strawbale, cob, wattle, yurts.

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12. Tools and equipment

Hand tools, power tools, chainsaws, tractors

Safety first, second and third. Chainsaws, ladders, tractors are potential killers.



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13. Roads and bridges

Building and maintaining. (Pics of Heartwood road, log bridge)

Big rocks on the bottom, smaller stuff on top. Put down large rocks, the size depending on the softness of the ground, how much clay it contains, how bad the drainage. Drive on the big rocks for many trips. Where they sink in most, add some more on top. After the big rocks stop sinking into the ground, spread a layer of one-inch gravel or crushed limestone on top.
Do not develop ruts. Ruts hold water, get soft, wash badly from heavy rains if the road is on a slope. Always drive slightly to the side of your previous path. Think of your vehicle as a road improvement machine. Pack the road surface evenly.

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14. Homes

We shape our dwellings and then our dwellings shape us.
--Winston Churchill

Rickety, orderly, free-flowing, expansive, soaring, huggled, open, closed÷house shapes influence our psyches. So the lesson is to design and build a house that will shape us in a way that we desire. Dare we consider the result of building a house that is square?

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Climate considerations
Embracing or avoiding the sun.
Incidence of solar angle.
How to calculate solar angle.
Rainfall. Snowfall. Wind. Temperatures.

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Materials considerations

Local materials first. Natural materials before manmade. The true cost.

Footings and foundations: rubble/rock-filled ditch, concrete, stone

Green wood, rough-cut wood

Clay, mud, straw

Concrete blocks are a common foundation material. I worked for a year as marketing director for Trappist Concrete Products. I sold concrete blocks for many applications, including churches and schools. Our blocks had to be certified. Once each year we sent blocks to an independent testing lab, which subjected the blocks to compression tests--hydraulic rams were used to load them until they failed. The blocks tested at over a thousand pounds per square inch, some up to 1,200. A common block is nominally eight inches by sixteen inches, or 128 square inches. Multiply that by a thousand pounds and you quickly see that concrete blocks have enormous crush strength. Yet, on general principles, and because it is so easy, I would fill the voids with concrete to get maximum compression capability.

CONCRETE MASONRY HANDBOOK for Architects, Engineers, Builders, by Frank A Randall, Jr., and William C. Panarese, published 1976 by the Portland Cement Association, Table 1-3 on page 3 states that hollow load bearing block specs--ASTM designation C90--are a minimum of 700 psi, on average gross area, average of three blocks, individual units may test as low as 600 psi. Using 600 as the low end, 600 times 128 equals 76,800 pounds per block load capability. So four blocks will hold up 153 tons. Even if your local supplier produces lower quality blocks, it is apparent that four to eight of them sitting on an adequate footing will hold up anything we self-builders are capable of putting on top of them.

Using recycled safety glass--a caution.
3-6-00: Here's a laugh on me and a lesson for you.

Years ago I was able to buy twelve sheets of patio door glass seconds, with cloudy flaws, for ten dollars per piece, each nominally 34 x 76 inches. I have used a few of them for temporary cold frames but mostly they have waited for a recycling opportunity. The East Wing, my current room-for-all-seasons building project, was an opportunity to use eight of them.

I installed the first four and then proceeded to double-pane them. I cut cedar strip spacers and outside trim pieces rabbetted to fit snugly over the glass edges. On the last trim piece of the last pane I was turning the final screw when the inside pane suddenly disintegrated into a zillion pieces before my horrified eyes.

I knew that safety glass breaks that way. I also knew it is very strong, will withstand all kinds of abuse. I knew that you cannot cut it. What I forgot is that a turning screw has sharp edges that cut. Yep, as I turned that last screw through the outside trim piece it went through the spacer and cut into the edge of the inner pane. Instant disaster and a day of work to clean up the mess, remove two panes to get back to the disaster area, install one new pane and two of the surviving panes.

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Safety considerations

Don't swim with alligators. Cause safety to be your constant mindset. Rural life is dangerous, potentially a killer. Tractors, other large machinery, horses, bulls, cows, hogs kill farmers each year. Saws can remove fingers as fast as they cut oak.



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Fire, wind, earthquake
Shall we build an impregnable fortress?

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Stairs
open or closed. storage below. calculating riser and tread.

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Railings
Safety first.
Beyond safety.
Pipe, wood, rope, beaver-trimmed poles.

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Cost considerations
To borrow or not to borrow.
What is the payback period on energy efficiency?
The effects of building square footage.
Standard sizes, the two-foot factor,
trusses.
Overbuilding and underbuilding defined and explored.

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Energy efficiency
Siting, solar incidence, roof design, windows, mass, insulation, airtightness, heating systems, ooling, lighting.

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Design, standard and alternative
Size, foundation, orientation, windows, tightness, insulation, roof color and material, heating and cooling

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Drawing plans
versus building by feel. Sketches vs. finished drawings. Takeoffs, estimating, bank and building department requirements.

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Building a model
Materials,
scale

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Construction
Timeline. Plan, plan, plan.
Friends as helpers.
Safety.
OJT.

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15. Outbuildings

Outhouse design
Greenouses and garden houses.
Incidence of solar angle.
How to calculate solar angle.
Mass factor.
Shop building and wood drying shed
Henhouse
Barn

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16. Fences and walls

Pastures. Controlling animals. Purpose and construction of barbed, woven, electric. Stone walls--pics of Christina's garden.



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17. Maintenance

If you choose materials carefully and construction quality is high, there will be minimal maintenance. I dislike paint because it requires periodic repainting. I use CCA treated wood for fascia and trim--health factors.

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Bibliography

Alexander, Christopher, et al. A Pattern Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.



Wagner, John D. Building a Multi-Use Barn. Charlotte, Vermont: Williamson Publishing Company, 1994. Excellent guide to standard wood-frame construction techniques. Plenty of illustrations. With no previous knowledge you could use the info in this book to build a house, garage, shop, barn, studio.



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Copyright 2008 Gene GeRue