Building a Home Part 1: Background and Framing

 One idea from native peoples across the world that has stuck with me over the years, having read a number of anthropological works, is knowing your environment and how it functions. They are familiar with all aspects of their world and how everything interacts, ranging from the tools they use to the things they interact with outside the home.  The difference between civilized society and the former is almost laughable in that regard. Today the concept of comparative advantage is worshipped, not just in global trade, but in individual lives as well.  This leads to a society where most people don’t know how to make the things they use on a day to day basis.  I want no part of that and wanted to be able to provide for humanity’s basic needs on my own.  This led to the desire that I would build a shelter with my own hands.

Ever since reading Dick Proenneke’s journals for the first time in the winter of 2012, I have been interested in the idea of building a home for myself.  At first, this was just an idea with little basis in reality.  I was not brought up to build or repair things, we simply called someone or bought an alternative.  As a result, I had no construction skills to speak of.  This lack of skills didn’t prevent me from fantasizing about building certain things though and for a while I was really into the concept of a tiny house on wheels. Over the years the form of the house changed, from tiny house to log cabin to tiny house to shipping container…but the premise stayed the same. In Wiseman, I dreamed of building a log cabin near the gravel bar with a grand view of the river. After moving to Fairbanks, I dreamed of building a tiny home and finding somewhere to park it.

I began looking at land and houses a couple years after moving to Fairbanks. I was slowly getting fed up with minor antics from my landlord, the feeling of not being able to do anything with the place and having to pay someone else rent.  Initially, I sought out the traditional path, getting preapproved for a mortgage and looking at houses available. In Fairbanks there is no building code, leading many people to build homes for themselves.  It is a blessing in that it allows people to build their own homes in whatever manner they decide. It is a curse in that it allows people to build their own homes in whatever manner they decide.  As a result, the Fairbanks real estate market is a barbell, comprised of many poorly constructed and decrepit homes for $70-120k and then many high end well-constructed log mansions for $250k and up with little in between.

There was little that caught my eye during this time and I began looking at land in the area.  A half mile away from where I lived there were new lots up for sale.  Some friends of mine were already living on the block and I enjoyed living in the area. After walking some of the properties and concluding that it was decent ground, I decided to buy 2 acres and finalized the purchase in the first week of February 2020. I was a landowner and immediately set forth to put things in motion so that I could have a place on the property that I could live in by the end of the summer.

For much of the previous summer and winter, I had entertained the idea of getting some shipping containers and converting them into livable space. Yet a lingering uneasiness remained about future resell value. If I didn’t like the location or decided to move elsewhere, would I be stuck with an anchor? As a result, I decided to follow more traditional building styles and began looking at house plans on various sites and trying to come up with my own. My romantic ideal was a home that I’d seen while working in forestry the previous summer. A one story log ranch home with a covered porch out front. For a while, I went back and forth between building a home out of logs versus traditional stick framing.  Ultimately, I elected to go with a traditional framed kit from a local building company, Spenard’s Building Supply. The house would be 20 x 16 with a covered porch extending out from the front of the house.

The house on the left is the one mentioned above and served as my inspiration

Winter turned to spring and I found myself eagerly awaiting roads to dry out so that my driveway and building pad could be set and the building process could commence.  In the meantime I was doing all that I could to prepare myself, reading and watching all kinds of books and videos on carpentry, building houses and working alone. Summer 2020 was very wet, slowing down almost everything from the start.  The driveway and pad were delayed due to wet ground, but my materials arrived on time.  Thankfully, my gracious friends and neighbors, Jake and Claire, allowed me to store the materials on one of their lots for a few days until I was able to move them. Once the pad and driveway were finally set, I looked over the materials in my driveway.  It quickly became apparent that the learning curve would be very steep. I kept muttering: “What’s this? Where does that go?” Over and over and over again. This “kit” lacked instructions or a parts list. The company’s sole means of direction is a 13-minute overview video on YouTube that covered how to assemble the whole house, with a claim that it could be up and dried in within 3 days.

An almost complete driveway

3 days? No problem, this would be easy, I thought. Accounting for my lack of experience, I figured it would take me a week. Tops.  I had decided to sign on to work forestry again and would be gone three separate times for 2 weeks at a time, leaving for the first time on July 8. I decided to end my lease in June, because after all, it would just be a few days until I would have a roof over my head and be protected from the elements.  That decision was prior to the initial delays with the driveway that pushed things back 3 weeks.  Still, I thought there’d be no problem. 3 weeks? Hell, all I needed was 3 days, right?

Hard to find good help nowadays.

The evening of July 3, 2020 I set to work in marking out the foundation, with my friend at the time, (now my beautiful soon to be wife!) Alana.  We were stringing out the footprint of the house so as to know where to put the concrete blocks that serve as the base of the pad and post foundation. We kept measuring and moving the strings but couldn’t get the numbers to the point we wanted, so that it would be square.  My footprint was the same exact one as that of the video. What were we doing wrong? We puzzled for a few hours before deciding to give up for the evening.  The next morning it became apparent that the numbers in the video were wrong, which was why we couldn’t match them exactly.  What a pleasant sign.

Laying out the foundation

With the foundation marked out, I went to work.  I laid out some concrete blocks I’d purchased from a local company and with some leveling, had a foundation that was square and level. 1 day down.  The following days I went about putting up beams with some help from friends and then the I-Joists on top of those. I was able to get some help from my friend Brody to set the framing around the joists and then hammering everything in to secure. 3 days had passed and it had quickly become apparent that this would be a much longer project than I had envisioned.

Layout complete. Each of the blocks are 300 lbs.
The makings of a floor

 Nonetheless, I continued on, with my friends Shannon and Evan returning to help me set the subfloor.  Framing is incredibly satisfying in that with a few big pieces you feel that you are making tremendous progress. By the end of the day, I had a deck and something that I could finally cover and store things under when I went away for work.  The part of this package that really made it more of a kit were the walls.  The walls had come already pre-framed in four-foot sections and simply needed to be stood up around the house.  To this point, this was the fastest part of construction. We started on one side, putting up both side walls and the back wall within a couple hours.  As we moved towards the front, I realized that I had received 2 of the wrong panels. 2 of the panels had window openings that were framed incorrectly. No problem, a simple hour fix or so to resize if you know what you’re doing. I did not.  I played phone tag with the building company, trying to get someone to come out and rectify the error. After spending 2 weeks working in the field and out of cell service, I finally was able to get someone to come by and was able to install the final wall.

A deck! A level one to boot.

My headaches were gone for the moment and now It was starting to look like a real house. I hired my friend Jake to come by with his skidsteer and help set the trusses.  With a modified boom, he was able to extend them out to my friend Andrew and I situated above.  We were able to set them all within a few hours, leaving just one more step before I could have everything covered and protected from the endless seemingly deluges of rain.

But there were more delays and distractions from building. My relationship with Alana had evolved beyond friendship, after working with her for 2 weeks and backpacking/packrafting her for nearly a week out towards Chicken. In an unexpected life turn, I found myself at the start of a romantic relationship and something that was a lot more exciting than building a house. By now it was the end of July and it had become abundantly clear that the process would take much longer than I initially expected. Reassessing my goals, I set the goal of having the cabin finished by winter.  Hopeful in my ever increasing abilities and newfound understandings.   

Part 2: Putting it All Together and Move In

3 Comments

  1. Looks like your doing a great job… best of luck on your future efforts.

    I remember the beginning of my 20 years living in the wilderness of Northern Alaska… facing 20 acres of untouched land with the directive to build homes for 4 families. It wasn’t easy (especially with no experience whatsoever… but like life itself one must put one foot in front of the other and move forward, the only difference was now I was living in a land touched by the hand of God.

    …here’s a quick look at the three of us building on our homestead… first a temp shack/then my tiny cabin/ and finally the first larger home 2,400sq ft this one with some background music.

  2. You know how things are when building in Alaska…. First sign of warm weather -10 or there abouts you get to banging some nails. We built 3 large homes two were 2,400sq ft and one 3,000 sq ft and three stories and we made sure that we had them roofed in before the first heavy snow fell, then all winter I would do electrical and hang plywood walls.

    Now at 75 I so miss the work and beauty of living in the wilderness
    so please take it from me
    ( savor ) every minute of you time out there
    because we can not stop getting old

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