The Joys and Perils of designing and building your OWN home!

Continuing the discussion from Roll Call: Who's coming to Basecamp?:

Hello @EndlessFix - and @TheOnlyAaron too!

While we can’t meet at a bar in Vancouver around 3dBasecamp - we do have our own bar here - the Corner Bar!

So I’ve started this thread!

I would have had my house built two years ago - if it wasn’t for all the California fires!

I’m not up to building it myself, and the contractors I’ve talked to and had on site to discuss the job ALL refused it - and their reasons for refusal fell into two categories:

  1. 4 contractors were older, nearing retirement, and had no interest in building the high performance house I envision - one even said “I’m an old dog with no interest in learning new tricks”!
  2. 3 contractors were young, go-getters, running multiple crews. But due to the fires, they have so much work in fire zones already scheduled that they couldn’t commit to building MY building for at least 3 years!

Now? I’ve found a tiny home builder - that uses a patented Korean (South) process to build high performance buildings - manufactured in their factory - using high performance SIPS. The builder is in Eastern Kentucky - and I’ve paid the design fee and we’re currently in process of designing my small building (home office and bedroom) - around a 34’ long, 12’ wide “single wide” mobile home base. I’ll need to find a foundation contractor myself - and one just moved in almost literally around the corner - and he wants the work! As of right now, I’m deciding between two floor plans (based on the furniture I intend to have in it) - then we define the windows. We’ve been meeting virtually for the last few weeks as my work schedule allows - and our next virtual meeting is this coming Thursday.

For the plans I presented to the contractors, I didn’t use SketchUp at all - I engaged an architect for it - all the way through getting it permitted! For the SIPS Single Wide, the company (Boxvana) took my permitted plans as a CONCEPT - and proposed using the 12’ Wide single wide as a platform - any wider would at least quadruple the costs of transporting it from Eastern Kentucky to my site in the Northeastern corner of Califonia! They sent me their two floor plan concepts as .dwg files. I imported to Sketchup, made them 3D so I could more easily play with furniture - and once I’d decided on which floor plan, sent it to Layout so I could document how I’m planning to arrange the furniture:
Boxvana Build for DORST - Floor Plan with windows 8-29-2022.layout (1005.1 KB)
A couple of notes:

  1. This was focused on furniture arrangement - so there is only 1 page - my chosen floor plan - and the apparently empty spaces as follows -
  2. The apparently empty space on the left in the room with the “Storage” structure is actually a vanity! The sink and toilet aren’t shown - but they’re on the TOP of that room - and the door will be a sliding barn door.
  3. The apparently empty space on the right is NOT part of the conditioned space - it’s a porch - suitable for future screening - that’s under a roof that is unified with the roof over the conditioned space.
  4. The main entry door will swing OUT onto the porch.
  5. The porch will initially be accessed from the opening shown at the top - an outswing screened door - and I haven’t detailed the stairs and landing I’ll be building once the structure is delivered. In the future, this access will be supplemented with a screen door on the RIGHT opening onto a covered breezeway - above grade at the level of my floors - connecting to another building.
  6. No kitchen! I’ll be using a kitchen in another building on the property
  7. No bathing (tub or shower) either! Again, I’ll be bathing initially in the tiny shower of my cousins Tiny Home on Wheels - he’s been living on the site for two years now! Once the “another” building is built (or created by major reconstruction of a dilapidated, nearly uninhabitable double wide already on site), it will have a full ADA compatible bathroom.

The entire build is centered on the philosophy of “I want this to be the LAST place I live until (and unless) I have to enter Skilled Nursing.” Consequently, I’ve used ADA guidelines - mostly 36" wide doors and interior paths.


Very cool! Thanks for sharing! I am at the very beginning of my process… a lot of dreaming and no too much planning at this point.

What we are hoping for is a new adventure for our upcoming empty nest phase (child #3 will be on her way to college in less than two years). This adventure looks like a plot of land in the Colorado foothills and a completely off-grid tiny home (on foundation).

Lots to think through and learn!


Looking forward to reading about your progress with Boxvana build.

Standard Panel \ John Pardue is the first person I saw doing these foam SIPS back in 2012. He was a part of the original group who came up with the concept in the late 90s and early 2000s. I suspect this method is how homes will be built in the future.

There is no question a very challenging aspect of building your own home. We bought our cabin in 1997. It was a T1-11 box with a shake roof and bad windows, orange carpet etc. I spent over 2 years building a garage with living area above. It was one of the hardest things I’ve done. When we decided to add a third garage bay, I hired a contractor. Now 25 years later we’re done with remodeling!


I acted as General Contractor on the construction of my own house 20~22 years ago (um, and it’s still not truly finished) in part to at least walk in the other guys shoes for once if not to see if I could do design build. I decided my personality wasn’t ideal for the task, but did learn a lot. Every subcontractor expects the place to be spotless clean before they start, but leave it a mess themselves when they go, so who do you think the cleanup work goes to?

Being an architect with friends in construction helped with getting people, but even still, subcontractors allegiance goes first and foremost to the general contractors who keep up a good relationship with them and lots of repeat business. They’re wary to take on some lone home owner who’s not in the business, and not bringing them more work in the future.

I did one modular home and the factory for that was in Western PA, not far from Eastern KY. There seems to be a concentration of factories in the part of the country.

One odd fact I heard about serendipitously: Some thermopane glass, particularly large sizes, I think, have trouble being shipped over the Rocky Mountains at high altitude. Not something I would have thought about, and never had to deal with myself.

Update on my process.

Met with the foundation contractor who moved in around the corner: He’s very interested in the job and wants to see plans.

Now it’s time to consider my timeline. It’s easier to work backwards from the day I hoping it’s delivered - that’s the middle of June 2023. Why so far off? Winter has become unpredictable at my new place. I’m putting delivery far enough out in the future to avoid any chance of snow or mud on the path within my property that it will have to travel to get to the foundation.

So - Working Backward:

  • Mid June, 2023 - Delivery (followed by 1-2 weeks of “fitting out” before I actually move in.
  • June 1, 2023 - Final 25% Payment (Due before shipping)
  • March 1, 2023 - Construction Begins - They say it takes 2-3 months as long as it’s neither overly detailed or expedited.
  • Sometime Dec 1, 2022 - March 1, 2023 - 75% up front payment due. This is dependent on material, door, window, and hardware selection. If I go with their standard offerings, then the date is March 1. But I’m likely to go with better windows (with a longer lead time from the manufacturer) - than their standard offering - and they want payment of the 75% before they start ordering special materials.
  • From now until whatever the 75% payment date turns out to be - MY “Don’t pay before” criteria is that I have a foundation under contract. I will NOT risk any chance of the home arriving and my NOT having the foundation ready! With the foundation contractor who lives nearby, there’s actually a chance this might be DONE quite soon - Boxvana has agreed to provide plans for permitting the foundation ASAP - well BEFORE the 75% payment. With 5% of the total cost due if I, for some reason, end up NOT going with Boxvana (a circumstance I currently see has high unlikely).

There are a couple of other material considerations:

  1. Interior Wall Surface - I want a light colored raw wood appearing finish. They can easily do it with bead board, but think they MIGHT be able to get raw, fresh cut pine - IF they can get it cheaper AND early enough that they can dry it in their humidity controlled warehouse. They’re still looking for a source for doing this with cheap, fresh cut pine. If they find it AND the savings are significant, that will make the 75% payment due closer to December 1 than March 1.
  2. Choice of Hardie exterior texture. The one I like is “only available from Northern California plants.” While the home will end up in Northern California, that’s not where the material is needed because the factory is in Eastern Kentucky! They are working with both their local Home Depot and Lowes to try to get my desired textured purchased by a Northern California store - then transferred within the chosen company (HD or Lowes) to the store closest to the factory.

Other significant open issues - not on the “Critical Path” (nor anticipated to be!):

  • Electrical Layout: I’m VERY particular about where I want outlets and lights - and I want more than the minimum - with some up high where some of my office items will need power (The printer, which I rarely use, will be on a high shelf, as will the central point of my office ethernet. I’ve also got a slightly unusual plan for venting the vanity which has implications on the electrical layout. I’m also providing the load center - pre-filled with the necessary breakers. I already have the load center - and will be buying the breakers soon - all with my significant employee discount at my employer - a wholesale electrical distributor!
  • HVAC - Heating and cooling will be through a mini-split ductless heat pump. But that doesn’t provide fresh air exchange. Air exchange will be provided with a Panasonic Energy Recovery Ventilator - that (again) I’ve already purchased using my employee discount at work.
  • Lighting - I’ll be using the Halo Home system for the lighting in the one large conditioned space. I like it because: It’s LED (and hence the highest efficiency residential lighting currently available). The color temperature is adjustable on a fixture by fixture basis through an app and a BlueTooth mesh network. I like “Daylight” when I’m working at my desk, but I like warmer color temperature when I’m relaxing or in bed. It’s also dimmable. On this one, I might NOT buy it all myself and ship it east - there are parts we MIGHT use (recessed cans) that are very low value/freight cost ratio and it might end up cheaper for me to have them buy it locally - despite my employee discount at work.
  • Procure a self contained composting toilet. Not sure if this will be installed by Boxvana in Kentucky, or by myself after delivery. The build WILL include roughing out for a flush toilet - but the weirdness of septic system permitting means I won’t actually install a flush toilet until another building on the property is reduced from “officially” having 3 bedrooms to “officially” having only 1 bedroom.
  • Planning for the entry stairs and deck landing. I intend to build this myself. I’ll have the grade level slab in place (part of the foundation contract) and the materials on hand at the site, but won’t build it until AFTER delivery - so the landing height above grade matches the finish floor height of the screen porch. To avoid needing to consider it for the purposes of permitting, I’ll be doing it as a separate structure - NOT attached to the building in any way! I also need to figure out what material I’ll be using. While I’d like to use Redwood, I can’t due to the location in a Wildland/Urban Interface (WUI) zone.

Most of the above “as yet to be determined” details are one’s I’ve been considering for over 2 years. Remember, I would have had this stick built on site had I been able to find a contractor - and I have permitted plans for that stick built structure. Reminder to self: Let the county know I’m abandoning that permit!

Siding: Why not just ship it with building wrap and have the siding done in the field after it’s delivered. When I did a modular, they had no problem with working that way.

Electrical: Almost every bit of my technology equipment has a UPS in between it and the wall outlet. The power often goes out without losing internet, so providing power to the router keeps it running for a while, and providing power to external monitors keeps them up and running long enough to switch to just laptop screen if necessary.

That’s due to elevation and the gas filled space or totally sealed space between panes. Most manufacturers do have an option for high altitude windows that have a “breather” tube to equalize pressure…apparently not all.

The SIPS used by Boxvana are NOT the usual SIPS. They aren’t a sandwich of foam between two layers of wood (plywood or OSB.) Instead, they are a sandwich of foam between two layers of fiberglass (there might be carbon fiber in there as well). This is what makes Boxvana’s LitePan® construction particularly attractive to me: NO Thermal bridging. Airtight/Vapor Tight, High insulation value. I’m looking for a modern high performance home with an appearance that won’t be out of place where I’m building it. By using Hardie siding and trim, with a standing seam roof on the outside, with a rough finished appearance wood on the inside, I’ll have the “feel” of a rustic structure but at its core, it will be a modern high tech building.

But one without a traditional screwing or nailing surface for attachment of the siding! Boxvana likes Hardie products - and they install them with a proprietary construction adhesive - no penetrations, even for the fasteners! Not to mention no material attractive to fungus or any kind of pest! Oh! And it’s self-extinguishing (the LitePan) and/or essentially non-flammable (Hardie) - great for my Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) site!

So that’s why I want the siding and trim done in the factory. Plus, see problems with contractors mentioned in my original post on this thread - combined with my not wanting to do much myself. I’m over 60 and have the resources to pay others to do work that I probably could do myself, but choose not to!

My issue is that my preferred Hardie texture isn’t available from the Hardie plants that usually supply the area where the home will be built - Eastern Kentucky. My preferred texture is “Select Cedarmill” - but that’s only available from their Northern California plant! “Custom Colonial Roughsawn” is my second choice - and is perfectly OK if they can’t find a way to get “Select Cedarmill” to their plant - or if the costs of getting it there exceed the value I place on the appearance of Select Cedarmill over Custom Colonial Roughsawn.

Quick note on Electrical: I DO already have a fairly big UPS on my office computer setup that’s already on site. If, in a power outage, I reduce my normal 3 monitor setup to just one monitor, it gives me 2-3 hours of use. But that’s NOT the limiting factor on the availability of internet during a power outage. That’s the Starlink base station. I have a smaller UPS on it already - and it only lasts about 20 minutes in a power outage. I think a significant portion of its power use is in the antenna positioning motors. Starlink antennas move - constantly seeking the best connection to the 4-8 low earth orbit (LEO) satellites that are usually within view. I’m planning on a larger UPS for the base station, but haven’t settled on one yet.

@sjdorst how is the Boxvana project progressing?

Slowly. VERY Slowly. Because I’m NOT including bathing facilities or a kitchen, it can’t be certified by Boxvana as either a Park Model RV under RVIA, or a Mobile Home under HUD. So we have to treat it as a one-off, manufactured ACCESSORY building - with full plans STAMPED by a engineer certified in California who is familiar with Boxvana’s construction panels called “Lite Pan”!

I can’t tell Boxvana “Go” until those plans (which I don’t have yet) have been submitted to the county and a permit issued.