(pic from JL)
At some point, farms need barns. A mower, some kayaks, various tools — all of these things needed a home, so we set out to build a pole barn. I did most of the work early on, but L came through in the end for many of the finishing touches. The requirements (self imposed) were that the structure match the house, at least somewhat, and include some percentage of repurposed barn wood from L’s Dad’s old barn, which we pulled down four or five years ago. So after some sketching, this is what we have:
Having completed our house building project, I thought I’d post a review of FirstDay Cottage kit homes. In the end, I’d give the whole thing four out of five stars and recommend a FirstDay to anyone interested in building a cool little house by hand.
This is a review of the plans we used, the provided instructions, the proposed building process, and what ended up being the finished house itself. For lack of a better template, I’m going to follow ye olde “pros and cons” approach to review writing. But since that either/or format can leave something you hanging, I end each “con” section with some solutions for how to solve the problems I identify. The idea behind proposing the solutions is to help out future FirstDay builders, since building this house was a lot of fun and very rewarding.
We now have a house. This is by far the biggest pro on the list, and it almost overrules any cons mentioned down below. Thanks to this kit and a lot of hard work, we were able to navigate our local permitting processes, develop a set of steps through which to work, and complete this house in very little time. This is all to say that nearly everything we needed was included in the kit, the plans worked for us, and we built ourselves a dang house.
A unique design. While there are certainly more modern and innovative designs out there, and some of them are even available as kit homes, the FirstDay homes are certainly unique. You end up with an all-wood interior, which is cool and different, and the exposed beams (a modified timber-frame style) is also striking. We built a T-shaped house, and the kitchen (bottom stem on the T) is large — high ceilings — something that is a very nice part of the design. In addition, not needing any interior walls meant that we would adopt an open floor plan which we love. Also, a great element in this design is that fairly inexperienced builders really can put these kits together. This is not the case with many designs out there, as some require heavy equipment to erect massive trusses and beams, for instance.
A company with character. Having read around on various message boards and discussion groups, I know that the idiosyncratic nature of the FirstDay plans has been criticized by some. I’ll even mention something about this down below in the “cons” section. However, I think we appreciated working with a kit home company where the architect himself answered the phone. We got to know him and he got to know us. Yes, the plans and instruction are hand drawn, hand written, and often out of order. But this meant that we had to do a lot of work ahead of time to figure out what we’d be doing every step of the way. In a sense, I think this helped us to internalize and fully understand the plans and steps in the process.
We hired almost no one. The FirstDay kit was a blueprint for a very simple house. This meant that we were able to do all of the framing, sheathing, wrapping, insulating, siding, roofing, and finish work ourselves. We then did the plumbing and electrical work as well. The only people we hired were for the foundation and septic system. This is in part thanks to the very simple way this house is designed. It’s actually do-able. Doing almost everything ourselves makes us that much more connected to this house.
Materials storage is a problem. All along, we were suspicious that the FirstDay guidelines for materials storage would be a problem. The suggestions, in the instruction booklets, are for builders to store a significant amount of materials on site: up off the ground, stripped, and under tented tarps. We built our entire house (except for a bit of finish work inside, the plumbing, and electrical systems) in about three months. We carefully stored the materials following all of the instructions provided by FirstDay, but in the end, many of our materials got damaged by water and animals. In some cases, the tarps were no match for driving rain. In all cases, rodents fell in love with our wood piles.
Solution: As I see it, there are three easy ways to solve this materials-storage problem:
1. buy or rent a big shipping container, then resell it when you’re done (or turn it into an underground bunker)
2. build or use some kind of barn or shed (20’x30′ might do it) to store your stuff
3. don’t go with a kit company for your materials, but just buy them locally; this might even save you money
Instructions and Plans are Somewhat Lacking. It takes some very good interpretive skills to puzzle out the plans and instructions for a FirstDay Cottage house. I mean, nearly everything you need to know is there, but it’s not always in an order you would imagine helpful. We ended up working from instructions for various houses, inserts amending those instructions, and so on.
Solution: Comb through all the plans and instructions and plans ahead of time, making your own linear To Do list that is step-by-step and divided up into projects (foundation, sill plate, beam installation, etc.) We did this and it was a great process. I can’t imagine trying to figure things out while building the house.
Bad roof design. As designed, the roof on a FirstDay cottage has very little overhang, low-quality roofing materials, and a vent that takes on water and snow in strong winds. These are problems that are widely discussed on various message boards regarding the houses. With all of that said, if you follow the plans and use the materials provided by FirstDay, you’ll have a roof. Roofs are good. It might not be the best roof, but it’ll be a roof. In my opinion, though, you could do better.
Solution: There are various solutions to these problems. In my opinion, the way to go here would be to:
1. use more substantial materials under the roof and on top of the foam; the plans call for 3/4″ strapping under the roofing; I’d go with 2x4s. That would allow you to create substantially larger overhangs, which would be a big plus for the siding and windows down below.
2. related to #1, create soffits via a series of triangle supports; looking on YouTube, it looks like at least one FirstDay kit builder has done this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kN1LuJf5eCQ
3. consider installing a higher-quality metal roof; do you really want all of your attaching screws exposed to water, snow, and ice?; I think a standing seam roof could be a better bet, as it covers all screws
4. if you don’t do #3, at the very least you’ll need to block water and snow from getting into the roof vent; we used this stuff, cut into short strips, to block out the water but allow for air circulation: http://www.ecvv.com/product/2458483.html
Poor window design. There is something wrong with the idea of putting a window in line with lapped-siding in that the laps create seams for water to run down … right into the windows! Note that most houses with vertical siding use baton boards to block off the gaps between boards. Laps are nice, but they create channels for water to run down, particularly after the wood shrinks a bit.
Solution: You simply need baton boards of some kind, at least over the windows. This will keep the water out of those windows, which is a must. We have yet to install baton boards, but plan to do this soon.
Subfloors are not finished floors. The FirstDay kit houses are cool in many ways, as they allow you to do things like create finished walls very early in the process, avoiding a lot of messy drywall work. However, there is a flaw in the idea that you’re going to lay finished floors (tongue and groove) early on in the process, and that those floors are going to be high-quality once the house is all finished. The problem here has to do with moisture and humidity. Unless you’re building your house in the desert, the tongue-and-groove floors will necessarily have more moisture when you install them than when they dry out later in the closed, potentially de-humidified house. This will mean that you, just like everyone else who builds a FirstDay cottage, will end up with cracks between those floor boards. It’s seductive to think that you can install a subfloor that will later function as a finished floor, but you’re going to get gaps.
Solution. The solution here is pretty simple, and we did this on our lower level. You simply need to close the house up, dry it out, and then lay down tar paper and a regular floor on top of those subfloors. We went with an oak floor over the subfloor of 2x material. This floating floor has not gapped up like the subfloor and is standard in most houses built these days.
White Vinyl Windows? I’m not sure why anyone would go out of their way to build a house entirely out of wood and then install plastic windows.
Solution: Go with wood windows. It’ll look 10x better.
Okay, those are most of my ideas. I had thought of saying something about the abundance of nails and lack of screws in the framing (I like screws in some cases), and then something about how we added gutters and a mud room — but those are really more personal preferences.
Again, I wouldn’t trade the process of building this FirstDay kit home for anything. It was a great process and the house is wonderful. However, like anything, I think there is some room for improvement and many ways that builders can customize the house to make it even better.
We listened to “Dream House” last night — it’s an episode of This American Life that focuses on (in the first part) a guy who attempted to build a house for his family. They leave the big city, head to Maine, and spend years struggling through the process and project.
(Now that I think of it, I think Christian recommended that we listen to it — about two years ago. Well, we fell behind on our podcast listening, so only just now caught up. Anyway.)
Listening to the story made us think of just how much the house building process entailed, how close we came (so many times!) to getting derailed, just how crazy and hard it was, and how satisfying it is to be completely done. That’s right: we passed our final inspection this summer, finished up the finishing touches, and are done with the house.
Five minutes later we got to talking about ways to cover the grooves on our siding. Even though the boards are lapped, water seems to like to get in the laps and feed into the windows. Maybe what’s done is never done.
With the help of our pals Steve and Amy, one of the many things we finished up this summer were our railings. Code stipulates height of the railing (36″ish) and width between all gaps (no greater than 4″), so our design worked out around those rules and our ongoing desire to use up any leftover wood. As you can see, we ripped some of our remaining 2x6s down before L sanded the heck out of each balustrade.
This was all very exciting because it meant we could install the newel post caps that Steve made on his CNC router. The north post cap is a data-woodcut charting rainfall in Ithaca over the past ten years; the south cap is a data-woodcut charting temperature over the same period. Cool, right?!
Here’s a video of Steve’s process on the CNC router. After developing the models, he carved the newell post caps out of a single piece of basswood.
Once we had a roof on the top and some Typar all around, we began to breathe a sigh of relief. For example, when it rained–and if frequently did–I ceased crying because it ceased raining *inside*
Now, the next matter of business was all manner of siding, systems, trim, furniture–well, you’ve read the blog–during which we often said to ourselves (and added to our to-do lists) something called “gutterless solution.” Right. You can imagine how the rest of this post goes.
The water poured down with a lovely–if lively–pitter patter on the steel roof (hint: it does NOT sound like this) Meanwhile, we watched as the mud splashed on the siding and the roof water splashed on the siding, and the soil eroded and we thought to ourselves: “next up: the gutterless solution!” Ha.
Our “solutions” were many and included lots of plastic, rocks, slate, elaborate drains, and the occasional “meh, that’s what the footer drain is for!” These seemed so necessary, in part, because had ourselves convinced that we couldn’t possibly hang gutters on our house–we had no eves, no soffits, and a metal roof that was *supposed* to not need gutters. And then a year passed, and we decided there was a way.
We invented these terrific triangle jobbers and angled them to create a slope, then up went the triangles, the gutters and the downspouts. We even buried the downspouts and pumped them away from the house via PVC pipe to small rock drains. Voila! Our solution to the gutterless problem: gutters.