Building your own home as owner/builder

The Plan...

I've got a legal copy of Microsoft Project, many years of work building complex systems, and experience with multiple-year projects with up to 300+ team members. So I can build my own home, right?

I start off with a Master Project Plan, and it quickly grows to about 250,000 project steps and about 25 team members give or take. You know, carpenters, plumbers, electricians, etc. Not too bad I think, most certainly doable. After all, lots of people build houses, right? I establish the critical path of construction, approximately 18 months in duration. So I start clearing trees by hand and, two summers and about a hundred truckloads of split wood later, I've got a cleared piece of land. And, as I said in my construction overview, I developed an immense appreciation of how difficult it must have been to clear land in the18th and 19th century without chain saws, log splitters, and a pickup truck.

Owner/Builder...

As an owner/builder, my technical designation according to the Planning Department in the County of San Diego, I am permitted to work on and supervise and coordinate the work of others for a single dwelling once every five years. Having lived in numerous homes and done two major renovation projects, we have a very good idea of what we want to build and what we want the home to be. We also want to be as energy self-sufficient as is possible, and we've always been involved in some way with solar power conversion. We work with an architect to put the plans in a form acceptable to the Planning Department and I mistakenly decide to take responsibility for pushing some of the more esoteric elements of the home through the planning department approval process (off-grid solar power, self-sustaining backup systems, ultra-efficient lighting systems, etc.). I file, and pay for, the required 19 separate applications for approval that make up the Residential Dwelling Plan Submittal. Oh, not to mention the additional 79 form submissions that have already been completed or complied with, 98 in total. Maybe those pioneers with their hand axes weren't as disadvantaged as I thought when it came to building a home.

Power Utilities...

Why not connect our solar power system to the grid? The utility company requires me to first arrange with all of the property owner's land that the proposed underground cable crosses for easement rights, and turn over the land easements to the utility company. I then dig 1000' of trench four feet deep at my cost, lay all of the conduit at my cost, the utility company then pulls the wire and inspects for a mere fee of $50,000. Then I cover the trench. I decide to go off-grid to save me the $100,000 or so it would cost me to have the privilege of paying an electric bill.

Phone Utilities...

The telephone company is much more reasonable. They only require a 24" trench and conduit, so I dig one (850 feet long with the amazing patience of a wonderful neighbor, Bill McKinley, whose land I must cross) and install my own phone line. It only takes 34 service calls (does anyone at the telephone company actually answer a telephone? Do they even have phones, or are the lines permanently connected to an answering machine?), eight trips by the installer to get the feeder line working. Of the 100 wire pairs running to the junction box, not a single one of them is operational. It's simpler, I am told, to just fix them when they are needed. I am not kidding. Sounds like the County Planning Department ought to be inspecting the phone company more, and me less.

Catch-22...

To build a home in San Diego county, you first need a street address. But in order to get a street number assigned to your land, you must first get a temporary power permit, which allows you to string temporary power to your construction site from the power utility. But I don't plan to bring power to the site from the utility (remember the $100,000?), and I don't want to pay the $150 for a permit I will never use. I am told I can submit a refund request after construction. I did, three times and under appeal, and it was refused. Why you need a power permit to get a street number no one has ever been able to explain to me. That brings the forms submissions to 99.

"A basement in California?"

I want to have a basement. I am told by the Planning Department engineer that "we don't build basements in California". But, as I try to explain, I am building at an altitude above 5,000 feet, the ground freezes hard in winter, and I want to bring in my water service ("pipes") and other services at least three feet underground so that they don't freeze in winter. Months later we reach agreement that I can build a basement if and only if I put a single light bulb in it, not two. Isn't that a Safety Department issue I ask? No reply. Today, there's a single bulb in that basement, conforming to Planning Department code. Here's a photo of that lonely bulb and, yes, it is a bit dark down there. OK, it's a low wattage CFL but don't tell them. I surely hope they don't notice the small electro luminescent panel on the wall...it might count as a second bulb and I'd have to rip the basement out. Or fill it with dirt.

On lighting...

Oh, and light bulbs? "You must have 3 watts of lighting per square foot in the home...", the 3 watt figure is based on data from incandescent bulbs (the old kind, Thomas Edison, carbon filaments, glass bulbs filled with argon gas, and such). Their point is to ensure that we have enough light such that people don't trip and fall (uh, what about that basement?). But in certain areas of the home, you must use fluorescent lighting (bathrooms, kitchens) so that the power you drain from the power grid (that I won't have or use) won't be excessive. I'm not making this up. As I explain to the Planning Department personnel, I plan to use ultra-efficiency bulbs (LEDs, CFLs, ELs, etc.) so there is no way I could approach 3 watts of electrical usage per square foot, and I'm generating my own electricity so why should it matter anyway? For example, my 11 outside light fixtures use less than 75 watts total. But they look at me suspiciously and tell me they never heard of any of these ultra-efficiency bulbs; they insist that I use 3 watts of electricity per square foot lighting the home or it will not be approved. Having been a lighting engineer of sorts years ago, I offer to write a lighting specification for the County in lumens or candelas or foot-candles or a light quantity of their choosing instead of an electrical wattage requirement. They decline. So, I end up designing in conventional Edison bulbs to hit the 3 watts/sq ft and fluorescent bulbs where they want them but, of course, I plan to immediately replace them with my ultra-efficient bulbs. Thomas Edison, my boyhood hero, would be proud.

Another Catch-22...

The solar design uses novel solar cells integrated into the metal roof panels and gel-cell batteries for backup, in the event of snow covered roofs and no sunlight. But, of course, the County wants a backup generator in case we run out of both sunlight and battery power, and I agree. A slight problem however, they say I can't have a generator making all that noise in the woods, so I must pay one of their consultants $6,000 to do a field study of the noise level after I install the generator. Unfortunately, there is no written noise specification but, when they write one, I will get a copy and then I can start on my home. Sort of an unintended Catch-22. I take in photos of condos in San Diego County spaced 16 feet apart with the same generator between them, all spec-built condos. Having been an acoustic engineer of sorts years ago, I write a specification and, instead of asking first, simply submit it to the County. My generator only runs when I do my monthly tests and generates 42 dB, well under the 62 dB noise specification. I never hear from them about it again.

Ok, this is sounding entirely negative and I've only gotten started, so let me focus on some positives. One of the best things I did was hire subcontractors that I either knew did excellent work (by my own inspection) or who were referred to me by those same folks. Anytime I broke that rule, I became en mired in shoddy work and incompetence. So, I ended up mostly with an excellent crew that did excellent work.

More positives: Working with suppliers that catered to professionals, not home owners like me. Don't ask me about the Special Order Desks at Home Depot, Lowe's, or any of the other home improvement places...we're on a first name basis but they pull out guns when I appear. Home improvement warehouses are fair cost and very convenient suppliers for stock items, but never ever go over that line. A year after I had ordered and paid for my ultra-efficiency special order washer and dryer from Lowes, they still claimed that I had received it, though it had never been shipped and they couldn't show any paperwork that it had been delivered along with the other six appliances I bought from them. Resist any thought of placing anything that is special order or non-stock, take it to professional suppliers. Otherwise your life will be filled with store visits, telephone calls, faxes, and often employees who couldn't care if you rotted in hell trying to get an order filled correctly.

Supply-Chain Management...

I teach, among other things, Operations Management and Supply Chains...how products and services are manufactured and delivered to consumers. With Wal-Mart as an example of a state-of-the-art supply chain, most home construction material supply is still working in the 19th century. Let me give you one very simple example: I'm pretty nit-picky and detailed about requirements and such. When a full truckload of kitchen cabinets shows up at the door and is the wrong color and style, I wonder how that could have happened. Four deliveries later, and still with errors, I accept the cabinets "as-is". We don't have to look deeply. Let's start with just finding my home, located in a somewhat remote area of Palomar Mountain. Since I know it is difficult to find, I have very detailed one page driving instructions from all major supply areas (San Diego proper, Escondido, Los Angeles, etc.). I always send at least one copy of the relevant map and directions to the supplier, or delivery company, so that the driver can find our construction site. In over two years of construction, with literally dozens of deliveries, we have never had a successful delivery where the driver had the map or the phone number of the construction site which we provided. So they usually spend an hour or so driving around the mountain looking for the construction site, fortunately most of the locals know about my home and where to point the driver. If we can't get driving instructions to the driver, I guess asking the supplier to use UPC codes or RFID's to track shipments and guarantee inventory is just asking way too much. I suggest that they look at FedEx or UPS or any one of the other common shippers as role models. They decline. There is a huge business opportunity here.

Oh, and the cabinet manufacturer, refusing to believe that there were manufacturing defects in the cabinets and that damage "had to be done" in transit (remember that lost truck driver?), asked me for the names of the "Inspected by..." stickers on those cabinets. Odd finding, all of the good cabinets have stickers on them; the stickers had all been removed from, or never placed on, the bad cabinets. That's not simply incompetence or carelessness, it's reminiscent of malicious GM workers leaving Coke bottles in the door panels of new Cadillacs in the 70's. Another business opportunity here.

On meeting county specs...

Well, November 16th was my older son Greg's 29th birthday, so I gave him a call to wish him a Happy Birthday. I wasn't in the greatest mood. I had just learned that we have failed final inspection by the county on about 8 points on our new home. I appreciate they don't want to pass something that is unsafe, such rules are in my best interest and that of my family. Of the eight, I believe that one possibly has merit (though the jury still out on this one) and I spent the last 6-8 hours or so documenting and photographing why the others are bogus. And, of course I simply caved on some because sometimes that is the easiest way to get along. Just "do what they say". Case in point: Should the house fire sprinklers turn on, the inspector says that the fire bell has to ring in 30 seconds or less. Ours takes 35 seconds, we fail. I call the certified designer/installer, Symons Fire Protection who happens to be the best in San Diego county, and he ignites when he hears about the 35 seconds because he states the spec is "between 30 and 60 seconds", and explains why. He is going to call the head supervisor to complain. Instead, I decide to take the Fire Sprinkler Alarm mechanism apart and figured out how to reset it to a lower timing, tested it three times, and we're at 20 seconds. Hopefully good enough. Note on the black circular "Retard Time Valve" below it says "not to exceed 90 seconds".

Geometric anomolies: Window egress-style...

Perhaps my biggest frustration, and one that trips many homebuilders is window egress specification (i.e. making sure you can climb out a window). It's designed to protect occupants in the event of a fire, and ensure that they can exit the window in an emergency. A very good idea. One of my windows fails, the inspector claims, because even though it is 4" wider and 10" taller than needed, it doesn't meet an "area" specification by 14 square inches. Ok mathematicians, try and reconcile that specification shortfall and no, there are no geometric anomalies or wormholes here. I am told I must remove that window and replace it with a larger one. Not exactly an easy or inexpensive task for a supposedly completed home. The window manufacturer claims it meets the ICBO specification for window egress, so I carry photos of the window open and closed with rulers in view, as well as the ICBO Spec verification to the county planning office. The person there "helping" me looks at my photos, my measurements and calculations, the ICBO Certification, and says "I don't care about the ICBO Spec you have or what the manufacturer states, I don't think it meets". I challenge, he disappears for 25 minutes and returns with a book 6" thick and in 8 point type (a book I had never seen before) but is unable to back up his claims. I politely wait for another person, figuring out a way to satisfy this fellow without adding myself to the County's "blacklist". No one comes. Meanwhile, the ICBO spec is supposedly an International standard. But the window manufacturer refuses to get involved, he claims that our County people are whimsical about interpreting the specifications and that they've designed four (4) separate hinges trying to satisfy the individual inspectors with no guarantees that they will satisfy. They're even more upset about having to work with our County personnel than I am. Even my "helper" at the County desk admits that each inspector can develop his own interpretation. Sounds like great standards work on the part of all. ICBO is supposed to be about "People Helping People Build a Safer World". That sounds like a very good idea, and I applaud their efforts to protect me. But somewhere along the line, it's badly broken, like much of the construction industry.

Emergency Signage...

I need a sign on the home that tells an incoming fireman or whomever identifying the electrical disconnect for the home near that switch, sounds like a great idea. However, I've never seen such a sign on a home, couldn't find one at any of the electrical supply houses in San Diego County, none of the electricians I contacted ever heard of one, so I politely ask if its ok for the sign to say "Electrical Service Disconnect". I am told, we don't know what the correct wording is, so you'll have to go the the Kearny Mesa office and ask there. I do, one of eight separate trips in the past week to resolve what I believe are nuisance items. I meet with this senior engineer electrician fellow, who shall go unnamed, and he says "Electrical Service Disconnect" might be ok, but he's not sure. Who is, I ask? No one, I am told. Remember, "each inspector can develop his own interpretation." So I go with "Electrical Service Disconnect", hoping that I get someone that doesn't demand it in four phrasings and five languages.

My head hurts and I've only begun...

I print out all of my documentation showing how I have complied with the various points and documenting the points of disagreement, leave a copy at the Planning Office for comment and review, and leave a smaller packet at the home. The inspector comes for another inspection, looks at the stack of paper, never enters the home, and signs the Certificate of Occupancy. Maybe I wore them down? They certainly wore me down...