New Construction Project – Outhouse/Toolshed/Woodpile

•June 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

So my pop, brother and I met after my brother’s graduation ceremony and discussed our upcoming trip to the land. We’re heading out on the 16th and staying until the 20th. We’re going for a few reasons. We want to make sure our boat has made it through the winter, as well as the platform itself. There were a few giant windstorms since we were last there, and even though there are no giant trees near the platform itself, a lot of smaller ones could do some damage. Also, the freezing and thawing of the ground could potentially have moved some of our foundations. To deal with this, we plan on putting some braces across the posts when we go up this time.

We’re also going to build a smaller platform to the east and just a bit north of where the cottage platform is. This platform will house the outhouse, woodpile and tool cabinet. Right now the outhouse is just sitting behind a bunch of trees a way off from the basecamp and we imagine people will eventually want a little more privacy. The new platform will be 16′ by 8′. The roof will overhang all the edges by about 2 feet, so it won’t rain on you, on the tools, or the woodpile.

We’re doing up some drawing for this one, and I’ll be posting those shortly, along with more detailed information on how we’ve improved out methodology since the last platform. Namely, we have a plan before we get there with a pile of wood and no hammer.

Oh, and I called the Coleman Township today for a building permit, which they are mailing out. Should be interesting to see if they’ll actually let us build this slanty shanty. Not that that will stop us, but it’ll be interesting.


•June 4, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I mentioned this homemade windmill video before, which is one of the craziest things I’ve ever seen, but it just might work. It wasn’t on youtube, so I put it up so you all can watch. Basically he takes a big plastic pipe, makes it into blades for the windmill and uses an old car alternator as the generator. The guy doing the video also has a really unique accent:

Part 1

part 2

part 3


•May 25, 2009 • 2 Comments

My pop, brother and I are going up to the land on the 16th of June until the 20th, mainly to see if the foundation is still intact, and to do some hand-on planning and visualizing, and to swim and fish and look at stars and eat food out of cans. We will be building a smaller, less permanent platform and small shack for our toilet. We found a composting toilet, used, on craigslist for 250 bucks, which is a substantial discount from the price of a new one (about two grand.) Even though it was used, the guy who sold it to us cleaned and disinfected before we picked it up.This is the model we purchased:

Basically, at the beginning of each cottage season you fill the bottom tray with a layer of compost. As you use the toilet, the compost starter turns…whatever you drop onto it…into harmless compost, which you dump out at the beginning of each new season. This unit is good for up to 4 people using the toilet three times a day. Generally we don’t pee into it. Explicit, I know, but someone has to be brave and discuss this most important topic on this vast internets. The unit we have is not powered, and is vented out a long tube that sticks up the back and goes out the roof. The powered version basically has a fan in the vent tube that dries things out faster, and can therefore be used by more people because it composts faster. In any case, the vent tube makes sure the smell doesn’t stick around, which I think is quite nice.

For the enclosure for the toilet, we’re looking at sitting the foundation on concrete piers, which are less stable, but the platform will probably be rather small. HOWEVER, we might get ambitious and turn the platform into a combo wood and storage shed, with a separate shed for the toilet. We’re also talking about the location for this, because if it’s the middle of the night, or a cold morning, you want to be able to get to the toilet with a minimum amount of fuss.

Light inside will also be an issue, but I think we might be able to kill 4 birds with one stone. If we put a few LED lights along the shed (they use even less energy than the compact fluorescent bulbs and are more environmentally friendly) we could conceivably run them off a car battery that’s charged from a small solar panel from Canadian Tire or somewhere similar. A fan for the toilet could also be hooked up to this, and the battery could be hidden in the back of the shed. I’d imagine the floor area would be about 5 feet wide by 12 feet long. And maybe directly behind or beside the cabin, somewhere that could be linked up to the landing at the top of the stairs to the cabin by some decking so that you could get there at night without tripping over rocks and roots.

I’ve been trying to use Google’s SketchUp to show how these things would look, but it’s just too sharp a learning curve. I’m going back to MSPaint.


•May 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

When we originally constructed the foundation, we used 12 metposts, which are essentially metal spikes with a bracket for a 4×4 on the top, to hold up the beams to which we attached joists, and then covered with deck boards. We weren’t sure whether the foundation would be used as a floor for a structure and, honestly, we didn’t even know how you’d make a floor for a structure. We basically just used the technique we had used before to build a neighbours deck one summer. Every 8 feet we put a row of three met posts, hung a beam off a 4×4″ pillar and hung joists in between these beams. We also screwed everything in, instead of nailing them, something I think will end up being the right idea, in terms of general creakiness and give in the floor. This is the best picture:joists

In a normal house, you would just run long joists from wall to wall, putting supports where you can in the basement, or using load bearing walls to support them on the 2nd floor and above.

As it turns out, having deck board under the floor of a cabin is not really the traditional way of doing things. So we were asking ourselves if we should maybe take them off, and build the floor right on top of the joists. When you build a traditional floor, you basically put cross braces between joists in the form of an X or flat pieces of wood the same width as the joist toe nailed into them, called blocks.This is to improve the rigidity of the floor. Our joists don’t run very long, much shorter than traditional housing spans, so that leads me to believe we would have no issue with rigidity without the cross braces or blocks. Then, on top of the joists you screw or nail down 1/2″ tongue and groove plywood in an offset pattern, making sure to leave 2mm of space between each board for expansion.

I’ve had to deliberate on whether or not we should remove the decking, and put in braces of some sort for rigidity, but I am inclined to leave the decking. The decking will give incredible rigidity to the floor, as well as take up part of the total load of the structure. Because we are not on concrete piers or a full concrete foundation, this is important. The only disadvantage is the slight gap between the deck boards and the added height, and this really only affects the walls of the structure.

This affects things because we’ll be putting a 1/2″ plywood on top of 2″ deck board. Walls are made up of plates for the top and bottom, and studs that make up the height. The total height of the wall should be 8 feet, because that’s the height of the plywood sheets that will end up covering the walls. It just makes things super easy when building to not have to cut anything. But if there is also this 1/2 inch plywood and another 2 inches of deck board, the plywood will not cover this.

So, the solution would be to put a board around the sides that will cover this area. But the board will have to be flush with the walls so that the siding covers it as well, ensuring no moisture penetrates.

Right now, I’m feeling like I have to draw this out on paper. I’ll post it once I’ve got it figured out.

Two Books and a Good Store

•May 16, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Two books we’re using right now to help up come up with ideas and understand the construction process at the CMHC Canadian Wood-Frame Housing book, and the Time Life Outdoor Structures book from the Home Improvement series. Our copy is from the 70’s, but it all still applies and the drawings are great.

The CMHC Wood Frame Housing book is a good mix of the technical and the practical. It makes some pretty good suggestions about where you can cut corners and what building codes generally dictate in this frozen wasteland of ours. If you are a women, and live in the United States and are into a sham marriage, please feel free to e-mail me. I kid, but only very slightly. I’ll let you know after this winter.

The book also introduces the housing jargon in a way that allows for you to figure out what the heck they are talking about. Don’t make the mistake of assuming a sill plate and base wall plate are the same, because they’re not. If you did, you might end up with a crooked lintel and your subfloor would be ontop of your overlay instead of under it. I know things now, so don’t mess.

The drawings are OK, but they are a little overly complicated. The book is not designed for the amateur trying to build a small structure, so I use it mostly for figuring out the technical stuff, like what size bolts you need in your sill plate and what is the proper distance between studs. This is not a how-to book, more of a guidelines book. But it is the best selling book on the subject in Canada for a reason, and it’s only 25 bucks.

The Time-Life book is wonderfully amazing and has all kinds of neat tips and tricks and advice that will save you from wrecking things. Par example, you should carry trusses upside down so you don’t pull apart the joints accidentally. Seeing that they are the single most expensive line item on our budget, this would be sad if it happened. Speaking of which, I will post a detailed breakdown of our projected expenses for this building shortly, but it’s looking like it will cost about 7 grand right now.

The illustrations in the Time-Life book are way better than the CMHC book, but this is likely due to the amount of page real-estate they have. The book is just a lot bigger. Sometimes seeing the picture explains everything much better that the text alone could. The project they describe in the TL book is a garage, but the basic structure is the same, a single room structure with a single peak gable roof. That just means one peak, the regular way – sloping down to both sides from the middle. Damn. I wish I had a picture.

We’re looking at Habitat for Humanity’s ReStore for doors and windows on the cheep. I passed by the one just off Royal York and the Gardiner last week and there was tons of great stuff for reasonable prices there. We’ll probably end up using them for all the doors and windows. The windows are big and mostly in great condition, and compared to Home Depot’s prices, they are less than half. More on doors and windows in a separate post, but you can rest assured that we will not be buying new. Except maybe the patio door. More on that later.

Wind and Solar Power and general musings on power and building

•May 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Currently we have a tiny gas powered two stroke ultra pollutant generator to power the tools we’re using to build the structure. We will probably continue to use this for the rest of the construction process and in emergencies, but ideally we’d like to be using the sun or the wind to power our cabin. The wind map for our area doesn’t look too great (the MNR has one for all Ontario, check out the links), but there might be enough to power a few light bulbs at night and a refrigerator when we’re up there. There’s always the option of propane powered lamps and refrigerator, but those appliances cost more money.

I watched a video I got off bittorrent on how to build your own windmill for about 500 bucks using an alternator from a car. I had never thought of this before but that’s exactly what an alternator is – a dynamo that recharges batteries with the power of spinning, except in a car it’s the crankshaft that spins it through a belt and not the blades of a windmill. If I wasn’t so focused on saving for things like walls, I’d be all over this.

As for solar, it’s very attractive, but we really don’t want to cut down many trees, so unless it was much higher than the roof, it probably wouldn’t get enough sun during the day. And the cost is high, and it’s not something I’ve seen that you can build yourself. There’s a few companies that seem to be developing out of the box solutions, (which IKEA seems to be working on, how neat is that?) but we’re still a few years away, and the other ones…well, let’s just say that, as the carpenter’s motto is “measure twice, cut once” my motto is “buy twice as much wood.” Just kidding. But I think it’s a little outside my skill set at the moment. Maybe when I’m rich and can have hobbies like saving the planet.

As a side note, my pops had said that he really wants to get to a place of enjoying the land, and not being in construction mode, and for me, this is the part that I’ve really been craving – designing something and building it the best way possible with the resources we have available. I wonder if I’ll just be one of those guys who is constantly building and improving while everyone else is just lounging around enjoying the fruits of my labours. Not that I mind! But the draw to build this windmill, something that I know will take time away from just enjoying, made me think about this. A friend from the Montreal days, Lori Braun, once equated humans and their constant need to build to the beaver. She was renovating her newly purchased house…rather, I was renovating her newly purchased house, but the sentiment said something to me.

Aside from the fact that the land is really to craggy to put a tent on, literally anywhere, without a platform, why the need to build this shack? I mean, shouldn’t we be satisfied with sitting in the muck on a cold day with the rain drizzling all around us and the bugs eating us alive? Isn’t this the natural conclusion of all our back to nature, ultra green, prime-directive “don’t disturb nature” higgledy-piggledy? What is the appropriate middle ground? Should we only be using wood from the land to build the structure even though that would take forever and end up being more expensive and prevent us from just enjoying the land? What makes us any better than the guy down the lake who razes three acres and puts up his McMansion cottage. I don’t think I have a good answer for any of this, but hope that we’re being humble enough not to push the earth, which I plan on enjoying as soon as I’ve built a cabin, windmill, deck, dock and cedar strip dinghy, into a vengeful tailspin of acid rain, global warming and endless Wal-Mart expansions.

Roofing Dilemmas

•May 14, 2009 • Leave a Comment

So, the construction of the walls of the structure is pretty straighforward – sticks attached to other sticks with nails. However, the roof is more complicated. Like the rest of the structure, whatever we decide on will be clad in plywood and covered with something, but the manner in which the roof is constructed can vary considerably depending on how much time and money and help we have.

The two main choices for roof construction are building one ourselves, using a similar construction method to building the floor, or using prefabricated trusses, which increase the strength of the structure, are easier to install, use less lumber, but cost more money.

The first idea was to build the roof ourselves, but it has quickly become apparent from various conversations with the helpful dudes at Home Depot, that there is a huge amount of time involved and it would required a degree of skill that we probably don’t possess. This method would probably cost around 6-800 dollars for the frame, i.e. not including the plywood, tar paper and shingles that make up the roof itself. It would also probably take a week. In this method you basically build a deck, then cut notches into the joists and nail them into the walls. The notches have to be precise angles and could be mis-cut real easy.

Trusses would cost about 1500 dollars, but would take about one day to install and are a lot less likely to be screwed up by neophytes such as us. We would use the standard gable room, which means just one peak right in the middle. They describe the rise of the roof through a factor of twelve inches, so for a tall roof, we would order a rise of 12 to 12, which means a foot of elevation for a foot of length. We would probably go for a rise of 6 to 12, because it will be easier to shingle a roof with less of a rise, and for some reason a really tall roof doesn’t appeal to me for a cabin, aesthetically. I’d like to see if we can get a skylight in there somewhere, but price will dictate this. Maybe ReStore will have one for cheap. We’ll also need to install one of those whirly-gigs called ventilators to suck the hot air out during the summer. This could be insteresting, as it requires more precision than most of the rest of the contruction will likely entail.

I’ve left a message with Diamond Truss Inc. in Toronto for a complete quote, but have yet to hear back from them. I may just take the drawings to Home Depot and get them to do us a quote. In the end, we will probably give the business to the Home Hardware in Temagami, as they were good to us the last time we were up there building. Also, the CMHC Guide to Wood Frame Home Construction says you should try to get your trusses close to the job site, as they can be damaged in transport. They should be carried upside down while moving them, along the longest piece of wood at the bottom, not by the angled pieces that make the peak.