Best Books for Building a Small Home

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Topic & cover

Title & Review
(Click the book graphic or title for more information and for ordering through Amazon.com)

Building

House Framing

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House Framing
by John D. Wagner 

"Probably the best framing guide available for standard wood frame construction."

Much information and very clear graphics for the new builder. Includes tools, safety equipment, basic engineering concepts, choosing hardware and all the essential framing techniques. Covers framing of walls, floors, roofs (gable, hip, shed, gambrel), dormers, stairs and even a bay window.

If you could only read one book and you wanted to learn enough to build a simple house - this is the one to get.

Building & Design

Visual Handbook of Building and Remodeling

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Visual Handbook of Building and Remodeling
by Charlie Wing

Charlie (Dr. Charles G.) Wing is perhaps the most creditable house building teacher in the world. Co-founder of the first owner-builder school (The Shelter Institute) his writing and teaching make complex issues understandable and buildable. With crystal-clear illustrations and explanations, this thick book (now in the 3rd edition) will become your encyclopedia of house building. Covers all aspects of building including electrical and plumbing, heating & cooling, insulation, drywall, tile work, trim out, and cabinets. 

As a physics professor Wing has some great information on the building science of how houses work. His old 1976 book (From the Ground Up) was where I was finally able to understand the basic engineering of how forces go through a building. Check out your library to find his earlier books - all of which are great and packed with good information. Wing's body of work is the history of the owner-builder movement.

If you can get a second book on home building this would be my suggestion. Much more detailed than the great Wagnor book above, you will continue to go back to this referrence for years to come.

Building

Working Alone

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Working Alone : Tips & Techniques for Solo Building
by John Carroll.

A step by step book for solving many of those tricky questions most new builders face. The author gives us practical solutions you won't find in even the best carpentry books. He uses simple jigs, clamps and brackets to build safely and accurately and without requiring an extra pair of hands. You continually say "why didn't I think of that?" Includes procedures for leveling and laying out foundations, framing steep pitched roofs, building overhangs and much more. Learn how to use measuring sticks in place of floppy tape measures, hoist heavy beams overhead all by yourself.... You get the idea.

Read this book before you finalize your tool list. Carroll uses inexpensive tools that he modifies slightly to be much more valuable to the solo builder or the small building crew.

My third suggestion for a building book. This isn't the first book to read, but it's invaluable for the (soon-to-be) wise owner-builder.

Design

Lloyd Kahn, Home Work - Handbuilt Shelter

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Home Work - Handbuilt Shelter
by Lloyd Kahn

This book is a sequel to Kahn's 1973 book "Shelter". A large oversized book with some 1100 photos and over 300 drawings, it is difficult to put down. Some of the best photography you will ever see illustrates shelter from around the world - all built by hand and generally without outside professional help. This book will give you a window into vernacular architecture - not the kind that comes in a box, but the kinds of homes and buildings people make using materials they find around them. 

The rest of the world knows about this type of building and much of it has evolved over hundreds of years or more. There are modern examples as well... Hippy vans, naked builders, Flying Concrete, ferrocement houses, natural houses, unnatural houses, earth houses, boat houses, tree houses, fantasy houses, a greenhouse built out of old car windshields.

More great houses and buildings than you could ever imagine, simply because many of these places are beyond imagination. This is inspiring me to go finish my secret room so I can show everybody. Be forewarned, there are things in this book that are guaranteed to inspire you to do something weird just because they are so interesting looking.

If you are looking for inspiration and want to get away from the cookie cutter look, want something different, or just want to look at pictures because you can't read, then I highly recommend that you get this book. You won't be sorry. (Review by Glenn Kangiser).  Order directly from the Shelter Online Store. Or, from Amazon.

PS - Kahn's latest book is Builders of the Pacific Coast. Here is a link to Lloyd Kahn's Blog.

Design

American Shelter

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American Shelter
by Lester Walker

Les Walker is a great teacher. You'll find you're looking at American history with a fresh viewpoint when you see it through the evolution of what we've built to live in. Through the use of simple but very understandable line drawings this book lets you mentally build and then walk inside most of the house ideas that have been tried on this continent. You start with a Native American wigwam, hogan, or plank house, then move on to the colonial settlers and see them build their first houses with pit-sawn timbers and thatched roofs - techniques they brought with them from the old world.

Later wood frame construction with machine cut lumber allowed greater freedom and led to many great period styles as American wealth increased. The same type of drawings explain the evolution and construction of later house building techniques and styles including sod, strawbale, mobile homes, modular homes, domes, yurts and houseboats.

This book is particularly helpful for understanding the history and evolution of housing shapes - like the way a one-room cottage can evolve into a two-story garrison house with a saltbox addition. Organically expandable house designs such as these are a good model for your New Homestead development and have always been used to control costs and allow owners to build at their own pace.

Design & Build

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Graphic Guide to Frame Construction
by Rob Thallon

This revised and updated edition is full of very well drawn details showing how to build just about any part of a standard residential structure. This is nuts and bolts stuff. The drawings are easily incorporated into your own set of working drawings to provide the required level of detail for connections, insulation, flashing & waterproofing, roofs, foundations, floors, walls, and stairs.

This is the "why pay more" version of Architectural Graphic Standards for home building.

You use this book to finalize the details of your plans or modify a stock plan to better handle local situations.

Land

Your Place in the Country

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Finding and Buying your Place in the Country
by Les and Carol Scher

This book was initially self-published in 1974 by a real estate lawyer who moved to northern California to build a homestead. The book was about what he was learning from his own experience and those of his neighbors. My first edition copy shows a picture of a skinny, hippy-looking fellow and his flower-child girlfriend. The latest (4th edition) shows a picture of a somewhat paunchy lawyer with a matronly wife and their two teenage daughters. Everyone's still smiling and they're still on the homestead.

Scher has continued to learn (now mostly from readers who write in with their stories) and continually update his book. This book will be invaluable in researching and purchasing property in your chosen locale. Like any good lawyer, Scher helps you review the pitfalls and potential problems of land purchase. This is a good resource for working with agents and owners, and a real book about real experience. If you will be buying property, let this be your first investment in the process.

Land

Cheap Land

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Country Property, Dirt Cheap
by Ralph C. Turner

Turner is a frugal computer nerd with a love of solitude and tractors. Set in southern Iowa, this first person story tells how he studied plat books looking for odd pieces of land; drove miles and miles of back roads; went to local farm auctions; and learned many new words like quitclaim and warranty deed. Finally, a "land wanted" ad in a local paper brought him to a fine 15 acre parcel of woods, with rural water, power and a small pole barn for $6,000 (1995 dollars). He then bought and moved an old 10'x14' "summer kitchen" onto the land and used this as a sleeping cabin. His rural dream retreat was complete when he bought a 40 year old farm tractor for $300.

A charming quick read, this book is well written and entertaining while being a practical workbook at the same time. Turner's property search methods are well explained and could be used to find comparable properties in almost any rural community.

Design

A Pattern Language

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A Pattern Language
by Christopher Alexander and others

It looks like a bible. It reads like a bible. It is a bible!

Almost any architect or designer with any vision at all seems more than a little upset that God didn't turn the whole project over to them in the first place. It may take you more than six days, but here's the outline to show you how to redesign everything from the social structure of Western civilization to the trim around your window.

The book is divided into 253 patterns. Each pattern describes a problem which occurs over and over again in our environment. It goes on to provide an essential core of a solution to that problem in such a way that you can use the same concept many times over without ever doing it the same way twice.

For example, pattern No. 135 - Tapestry of Light & Dark. The statement of the problem: "In a building with uniform light levels there are few places which function as effective settings for human events. This happens because, to a large extent, the places which make effective settings are defined by light."

This is followed by a discussion of how light affects our use of space. Then the core of the solution: "Create alternating areas of light and dark throughout the building, in such a way that people naturally walk toward the light, whenever they are going to important places: seats, entrances, stairs, passages, places of special beauty. Make other, less important areas, darker to increase the contrast." This is finally related to other patterns with which it shares a relationship: window places (No. 180), warm colors (No. 250), and pools of light (No. 252).

There's something timeless about this book. It seems to distill the humaneness from the designing and building process and give it to us in straight shots. This type of thinking transcends style but can form a foundation for the development of your own natural style. For more information on the very interesting work of this Architect/Philosopher see History & Notes.

Design & Build

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Code Check
by Redwood Kardon

This is not really a traditional book, it has tabbed and wire bound flip pages made of cardstock that are well protected with heavy plastic laminate. This thing is meant to be carried on the dashboard of your truck and accessed quickly and often. It's the perfect antidote to the brain deadening national code books it is based on . It condenses down and clarifies the relevant sections of the Uniform Code, International Residential Code, and National Electric Code. 

Written by an ex-building inspector who kept getting asked for his "cheat sheets". Full of understandable language and very clear diagrams. However, be aware that the ever increasing complexity of locally adapted codes may have outstripped any overview book. Be sure to check for local code versions, rulings and interpretations. 

Use the Search Box at the bottom of this page to do a search on "code check" to see if another edition is a better fit for your area.

Plans

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How to Build Small Barns & Outbuildings
by Monte Burch, and Ben Watson (Editor)

This book has a lot more to it than just barns and outbuildings. You can use it to build a hen house, root cellar or woodshed and get some basic building skills in hand. Then, when you are ready, the book will help you layout several other stick frame, post and beam and pole barn type structures. The drawings are clear, the photos are from real buildings, and the how-to-build information is timeless. Because it covers several specific building projects rather than generic building situations, you feel like you learn more and are more ready to build. Some of the buildings have nearly complete building plans included in the book. This is perfect for the owner-designer looking for a basic structure to modify for their own site and needs.

This inexpensive resource is also a good guide to low-cost construction. Just good country building - solid but without fluff and gingerbread.  


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