House-building idiot seeks construction guide for dumbasses.
November 22, 2009 3:32 PM   Subscribe

What is a good reference for learning to build a house? I need to get a basic grasp of things like building codes and best practices for electrical wiring, plumbing, roofing, etc.

So I'm planning my own rammed earth passive solar home to build in northeast Georgia, United States. I have a basic understanding of what goes into a home and how to design a sensible floorplan.

What I don't know are the particular specifications to comply with the building code and/or just standard ("best") practices in general. I feel like there is a lot I could do on my own (since I have the time) if I just knew HOW to do it. I understand it is prudent to have a licensed electrician (for example) to inspect the electrical work and do all of the final "live" connections, but I think I can run the conduit, wire, and connect outlets and switches myself... I just need a good guide.

Is there a good resource (preferably a book(s) that are illustrated) that can answer the following types of questions?

Electrical: How do I wire an electrical panel (fuse box)? How do I run wire from the panel to an outlet or light switch? What type of conduit is required? How do I wire all the outlets in a room to a single on/off switch on the wall? How frequently (in number of feet between outlets) do you have to place outlets on a wall? When do you need a GFCI outlet? What type of wire do I need for standard 120v AC? What about 240v (such as an oven)? What is a junction box and what does it do? Etc.

Plumbing: What type of drain pipe do I use for a sink? a toilet? How is this drain pipe installed into a concrete floor (before pouring)? What type of drop does such a drain need to have? In what situations do I need a clean-out, and how is it installed? How do you install plumbing for a shower or bathbub? How do you connect pipes so they won't leak? Etc.

Roofing (metal roofs in particular): How do I attach roof beams (joists?) to a sill plate (beams similar to this)? How do I "fill in" the gaps between the sill plate and the roof (assuming I want the joists to overhang on the outside and be exposed from below)? How do I attach the metal roof to the underlayment so that it doesn't leak? How do I install rigid insulation on a roof? Is some sort of rubber membrane required for moisture control? How do I frame around clerestory windows and prevent possible leaks (a roof similar to this)? Etc.

Building code: What is required (assume Federal building code or just what is common, unless you are familiar with Georgia code in particular)? What will the inspector look for?
posted by bengarland to Home & Garden (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The UBC is probably a place to start. Many local codes are a variation of it. Codes can vary by municipality even within a state. For best answers call your local building inspection department.
posted by JJ86 at 3:40 PM on November 22, 2009

I've recommended these books and publications in past posts, but Taunton Press publishes Fine Homebuilding and a series of books on topics such as building codes, green building and solar energy.

Southface is an Atlanta-based organization that promotes energy efficient homes. They may have additional resources that could help you.
posted by Andy's Gross Wart at 3:45 PM on November 22, 2009

Cultivate a good relationship with your local (non-big-box) hardware/building store, too. For all those situations where you know you have to connect A to B, but don't know what the name of the thing is that connects them.
posted by hattifattener at 4:07 PM on November 22, 2009

I've found it useful to wander through houses currently in construction to see how professionals dealt with a particular problem (such as your roof joists to ceiling plate question). This may be considered trespassing in your area, though.
posted by Diddly at 4:18 PM on November 22, 2009

First of all, you'll probably be better off with separate books on wiring, plumbing, etc - I've found the all-in-one books leave out a lot. (I'm just renovating an existing old house, not building a new one).

I like the Black + Decker Electrical series; I have the basic one but they also have an advanced one. They have a plumbing book too, which I haven't yet had occasion to use.

Whatever suggestions you get here, go check them out at your local library or real bookstore. I have found some books' illustrations hard to follow, some have good photos, some bad, etc -- much easier to evaluate this kind of thing by flipping through the thing in person.
posted by LobsterMitten at 4:27 PM on November 22, 2009 [1 favorite]

I agree with LobsterMitten about finding a separate book for each of electrical, plumbing, etc.

Also: Electrical codes get revised pretty often, so make sure you consult something current. The changes aren't usually major, but it'd suck to install outlets every X inches only to have the inspector tell you that the code changed last year to require X-1 inches. I assume the same is true of plumbing, structural, insulation, etc. codes.
posted by hattifattener at 5:09 PM on November 22, 2009

No telling if your locality will want a building permit before you start work -- if yes, they'll almost certainly want a set of plans showing where your electrical outlets are, and the general construction of your (planned) home. You won't get the permit unless your application has valid plans meeting their code. Some places are fanatical as others are loose; perhaps a fanatical building department in your locality, while a huge PITA when trying to pull permits, it might benefit you in the long run, as you'll have an idea of what you're going to do then. They aren't (only) nosy mopes, they really are trying to help you build something substantial and livable and safe.

You've got jam, taking all of this on -- I was in the trades for a thousand years but I won't mess with electrical or plumbing (aside from the most basic of all tasks ie changing out faucets and/or sinks and light fixtures etc) -- for anything other than the plumbing/electrical basics I call Jimmy, same as he calls me for any carpentry or roofing or duct-work or whatever. Make a good friend like Jimmy, is what I'd hope you'll do, what I'd want to do, for sure.
posted by dancestoblue at 10:55 PM on November 22, 2009

My favorite book for determining best practices for construction is Residential and Light Commercial Construction Standards. It's not the UBC, but it's peppered with references throughout and is chock full of "here's how you should do X" guides. I don't believe it has much plumbing/electrical, I'd have to look at my copy again. But it's a fantastic book for looking up how to do a roof, or stairs, or whatever. It's written for builders, but understandable by any competent DIY-er. Taunton is also a good read. If you're committed, you can pick up the archive DVD of Fine Homebuilding and just start reading.

Obviously local codes vary. You should also check out permitting requirements, since the consequences of not doing this can be quite expensive.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 7:41 AM on November 23, 2009

I checked a while back and the local gov't doesn't require building permits. They said they could give me one if I wanted one, but didn't seem too concerned about it. Still, I want to do it right.
posted by bengarland at 7:49 AM on November 23, 2009

I wouldn't buy a building code book. They are a legal document aimed at professionals and aren't really first timer friendly. Many contractors don't own a code book.

For Canadian Electrical I'm a big fan of the Knight books. They recommend this series for the US.

While some of the details are going to be different the CHMC book "Canadian Wood-Frame House Construction" lays out in layman terms what to do and when during the building process. (IE: when to put that sewer pipe in).

Specifically on metal roofing I've found that manufacturer web sites almost all had easy to read installation guides. It'll tell you decking requirements, underlay, flashings and trim. Window manufacturers also provide this information for their products.

Considering you don't need a permit spend that money on an electrician and plumber. A couple hours of their time spent at your project site during rough in where you could ask them questions and get advice would be well worth it. It's pretty easy to make a catastrophic mistake in these areas at rough in that is much harder to fix after you are finished.

If you've got time spending a few days volunteering on a Habitat house or similar project would give you some exposure to the process and allow you to ask questions of experienced people.

Finally you are going to hear "Code requires Blah Blah Blah" (EG: Code requires an electrical outlet in canadian homes every 12'). Every time you hear that keep in mind that when building a house to code you are building the worst house the law will allow. Don't be afraid to exceed the minimum requirements of code. And don't deviate from the manufacturer's recommendations unless you know why the manufacturer recommends a procedure you are skipping.
posted by Mitheral at 9:30 AM on November 23, 2009

IBC seems more common than UBC these days, but as others said it depends on your local jurisdiction, and anyway, don't buy a code book.

I have a whole big set of the old time-life DIY books which are a good jumping-off point for a given project, but I bet they're out of print. I'd also recommend one of the ching books, ie Building Construction Illustrated, to see how buildings go together. Really, any book is only going to give you an overview of the lessons that you'll have to learn through experience and trial and error.

Consider subbing out big parts of the MPE work -- keep in mind that almost no single person is enough of an expert to build an entire house from scratch. It's a worthy goal, but might be more trouble than it's worth (financially and otherwise).

Befriend some people with experience (contractors ideally) and plan to ask lots of questions as you go.

Have fun!
posted by Chris4d at 12:14 PM on November 23, 2009

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