Poor Man Survival
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It takes half your life before you discover life is a do-it-yourself project
Everything related to building today has become expensive...government fees, materials and land costs are rarely reasonable as I've discovered building our little farmstead. We share the lessons learned from this family.
For Less Than $35K, We Built Our Own Home
by Bill Hakanson
Since MOTHER EARTH NEWS was first published back in 1970, we’ve dreamed of improving the quality of our lives and being self-sufficient. And after spending most of our careers in the city, we finally got our chance in 2005 when 13 acres in northwest Pennsylvania — 10 of which were once part of a cornfield — came our way.
Our first challenge was to erect a building we could live in during the spring, summer and fall, and store our garden equipment in during the winter months. Eventually we expect to live in Pennsylvania year-round, but for now we enjoy exploring the South during the winters, leaving Pennsylvania after the harvest and returning in time for spring planting.
The corrugated arch-style building that we used is based on a British design dating back to World War I. In the United States, this style building was first manufactured on Quonset Point in Rhode Island during World War II in response to the need for lightweight, portable buildings that could be assembled without skilled labor.
The source of our 40-foot-by-40-foot building was SteelMaster, a company founded in 1982. Our building, an S Model, was manufactured out of 22-gauge Galvalume steel. One of the features I like about this type of building is the absence of posts and beams. The corrugated, arched wall design is self-supporting. The result is one large 40-foot-by-40-foot open square with an 18-foot peak.
To withstand wind and weather and secure the 30-year warranty, these steel buildings must be attached to the earth, either by narrow concrete footers along the base of both sides of the structure, block or wood walls erected to support the structure, or a concrete slab the full width and length of the building.
We chose to install a full slab featuring an 8-inch-by-12-inch perimeter concrete beam. This is called a “floating” slab, as it sits on a foot of gravel. Our building is situated on a slope, so water can escape from under the concrete slab should any get underneath. Inside the perimeter beam, the concrete is the standard 6 inches thick. SteelMaster provides approved engineering drawings customized to your needs, and they research and ensure compliance with all applicable codes.
The components of the building were delivered on three pallets. Looking at the small load, I couldn’t believe it was all there: Not counting the end walls, the arched structure involved bolting together 160 panels, each approximately 2-feet-by-8-feet in size. More than 3,000 nuts and bolts were required.
I originally thought I would erect the building myself, with the help of friends who volunteered. I quickly realized this project would take a more concentrated effort. Under a move-out/move-in deadline, I doubted I could meet my schedule with a weekend-warrior workforce.
The dedicated workforce was the critical component in my decision to hire a contractor. The other construction requirements included a scaffolding system and a cordless, rechargeable, electric impact drill. I was fortunate to find a local company that had experience erecting a Quonset-style building. Even then, erecting the shell took a three-man crew two weeks to complete. That’s 240 labor hours.
The building I purchased included three sides. The fourth side, made of wood, was erected by an Amish contractor. His construction crew completed the job for two-thirds of what the other contractor wanted. It took the three-man Amish crew four days to finish the south wall, including installing the windows and doors.
This south wall includes seven 3-foot-by-6-foot double-hung windows, a double door, a single door, and a 2-foot-by-3-foot office window. The large windows provide passive solar warmth in the interior space and heat the concrete slab. To supplement the passive solar heating elements, we installed radiant heat in the concrete floor and a super-efficient Vogelzang Durango woodstove.
The south-end addition included the interior load-bearing wall, the stairs, the second floor, the electrical wiring, the plumbing, kitchen cabinet and countertop installations, exterior decks, and lots of other interior and exterior work.
The next big issues were water and sewage. My research included visits to the county water resources department and talks with neighbors. Most folks have deep wells or springs. Some have both. Even though we get about 40 inches of rain each year, lots of folks around here have water problems during dry spells, and supplement their water needs with tanks carried in the backs of their pickup trucks, or with water deliveries from companies such as Culligan.
This discovery led me to the idea of capturing rain in a cistern and using it for non-potable purposes — the building was even designed with drip lips at the slab level. Once our metal building was up, I was amazed at how much rainwater could be captured! One square foot of rain, 1-inch deep, provides .625 gallons of water. That might not sound like much by itself, but it translates to 40,000 gallons of water per year that falls on our building.
We also installed rain gutters at the ground level of the building. That water is channeled through pipes into a 1,000-gallon concrete cistern buried underground. A shallow-well jet pump brings the water into the house from the cistern and feeds it into the PVC plumbing system for the kitchen and bathroom.
On the sewage side of the equation, we installed a BioLet composting toilet, reducing water usage substantially. The BioLet 20 Deluxe, designed in Sweden, uses a nominal amount of electricity to power a fan and heater that aid the decomposition process. In the near future, we expect to invest in a solar panel to power the toilet, which the company offers. In addition, we distribute graywater to the fruit and nut trees next to our home through a system of underground pipes.
This is a pay-as-you-go project, and we’ve kept costs to a minimum. We explore all options before spending. We will have no debt related to the farmstead, and expect to generate some income from our labors through the sale of our excess crops, shiitake mushrooms and honey.
Excerpted from MOTHER EARTH NEWS, the Original Guide to Living Wisely. To read more articles from MOTHER EARTH NEWS, please visit www.MotherEarthNews.com or call (800) 234-3368 to subscribe. © 2013 by Ogden Publications Inc.
Hiring a Contractor?
Make sure you are informed about permit fees when working with contractors! I recently called around to get bids for having our garage demolished. I also called the city to find out about any required permits and I found out that I would need an $85 permit. One contractor included a permit fee of $500! He didn't get the job. Some contractors were willing to drop the fee if I got the permit myself. So find out about permits and fees before you choose your contractor.
Yours in freedom,
Bruce ‘the Poor Man’
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