View Full Version : House design books

Jack Heinlen
10-05-2004, 08:42 PM
I posted before about building a solar house and got some great feedback. I've been tossing around ideas and it seems time to start getting sketches on paper. While I've worked on frame houses, both stick and timber frame, and done some furniture design, I've never tried to design a house. Any good books you can recommend?

It's to be roughly 1000 square foot, plus or minus. I've got an existing slab that is approximately 42 by 24, but it may well need to be broken up and footings poured to meet code, so that's not, necessarily, a limit. I want something that will be easily heated, both with solar gain and wood, and then be open-able, with lot's of opening glazing to take advantage of our breezes in the summer. I'm thinking double-glazed glass panels that could be mounted so they hoisted on a top hinge, turning the front room into a kind of open-air porch for the summer. I like Capecods, but I'm not sure about all that glass, aesthetically, in a cape. I'm open to other basic forms. Japanese?

I don't want a super-tight house. One that would heat with the sun and two chords of wood sounds about right. Great sun here in the winter, and a great exposure. I've also got some white pines that could, perhaps, be sawn for a timber frame, subfloors, sheathing etc.

How about engaging an architect?

Just thinking out loud. Any feedback will be appreciated.

10-05-2004, 10:55 PM

I havent looked at it for years but try to find some old issues of " mother earth news".

they used to have quite a few solar homes featured from time to time. they were also affordable to build.

you may want to check with your local building code enforcement office to find out how tight assed they are about certain things before setting your mind on any particular ideas.

Id check into getting a footing poured under/ around the slabs perimeter if possible- the price of concrete is over $100 a yard here. Make sure the slab has a vapor barrier under it or youll have damp concrete in your house- you should be able to dig a bit under a corner to check for this

probably the key to building an energy efficient house lies in the insulation- build with 2x6 construction and fill the wall cavities with blown cellulose and put as much insulation overhead as you can afford

Bruce Hooke
10-05-2004, 11:23 PM
What aspects of the process are you trying to get more information on:

1. Stick frame scantlings and related structural & engineering issues?

2. Solar home design issues?

3. Aesthetics and "livable design" issues?

Here are some books I would consider:

Building Construction Illustrated by Francis Ching provides a good "architect's perspective" view on the details of doors, windows, stairs, foundations, kitchens, etc. It does not get down to the details of what size header to use over a given size window opening but it should help with a lot of the little questions that will likely pop up about how this, that and the other thing are done. To get down to the real nitty gritty of header sizes, snow loads and so on you will probably need to get a copy of whichever code book your local building code is based on. If you don't want to spend that much money then one of the "field guide to the building code" type books will probably answer most of your questions.

A Pattern Language is a look at how everything from cities to our houses can be designed to better suit human nature. It does not get into the how-to details but it is an interesting discussion of how to make a house livable and comfortable. It talks a lot about things like room arrangements, window and wall treatments, and so on.

My solar home books are so old that I'm sure they are hopelessly out of date by now, so I can't make any recommendations on that front. None of the books I have on this were that great anyway.

If you decide to get an architect (a step I would certainly consider -- architecture is a vast field that takes years of training to become good at), Sam Woodward in Blue Hill/Surry designed my parents' house and they were certainly happy with the work he did. Sam is great at listening to what you want rather than designing what he thinks you should want.

10-06-2004, 03:28 AM
Untight houses and large glazed expanses are not consistent with an economical to heat house.

I want my house to have a breezy feeling in the summer too, so my idea tends towards having smallish windows high on the north wall (as few as possible windows on the north facade of any building - more heat loss from that side - no sun), which pivit from the bottom (top falls out on a chain - keeps more rain out in case they're left open) and french doors on the southern wall. The outter (east) wall has the fireplace flanked by smaller opening windows over glass front built-in bookcases. Arts and Crafts (A&C) styling, but more comfy furniture ;) . To my mind there is a lot of resonance between A&C and Japanese styles.

For the functional-aesthetics of houses, Alexander's Pattern Language book, refered to by Bruce, can't be beat in many people's opinion.

On other aspects of house design and construction, here are a couple of sites for your consideration:

Cheap plans - lots of layout ideas. NOT the typical plans book stuff by any possible stretch! A couple of basic "standalone" layouts with building block extensions for more bedrooms, gathering rooms and etc. An excellent outline of how a team of 3-4 people can put up a basic (finished, unfurnished) 1 bedroom + loft 16x24 cottage in 4 weekends. (IMO it needs to be about 8 feet longer and have a bigger kitchen and a bit more room in the main room.)

http://www.countryplans.com/ Another source of cheap plans and an owner extensible plan set. Lots of information on building; a forum (! ;) ); a good reviewed booklist (linked to amazon for your convenience ;) ) covering construction, foundations, plumbing, electrical, self-contracting, etc; a nice gallery of owner built homes, some of them with great narrative (especially the Nash Cottage in WY and the Eastern Washington one); ideas on solar energy and home-built glazing techniques using cosmetic reject sliding door glass panels.

The emphasis at both places is on simple, functional, individualized owner-built-or-contracted comfortable small homes.

[ 10-06-2004, 04:38 AM: Message edited by: Meerkat ]

10-06-2004, 04:29 AM
How about part underground? Cellars are unusual here, but in hilly cvountry building in an excavation and turfing exposed roof areas is a great insulation.
A two-storey house with the 1st floor underground was one of my ambitions.

Ron Williamson
10-06-2004, 05:43 AM
I like the "Not So Big House",Sarah Susanka(?)She actually has a few books out along the same lines.
They are essentially an architect's rants against McMansions.More about comfortable,realistic design and detail than driving nails
or making an artistic statement.
Ps.She's from Minnesota,and knows a thing or two about keeping warm.

Jim Goodine
10-06-2004, 06:21 AM
I've built every kind of energy efficient house you can imagine from underground to double-envelope and I've made all the mistakes. I've been at it since 1971 and I'm still trying to learn more.
I'd suggest trying to attend some of the energy efficient conferences held all over the northeast during the winter and spring. You can talk directly to the experts.
Start with a copy of "The Journal of Light Construction" where you'll see conferences listed. Their website is www.jlconline.com. (http://www.jlconline.com.) Also try the website of the Northeast Sustainable Energy Association.
Call your state energy office to ask about their information and programs.
My guess is that you'll end up with a nice tight house with continuous mechanical ventilation and a little extra south facing glass. I also like Sarah Susanka's books. Good luck with the project.

10-06-2004, 06:31 AM
Curious forum member: How about part underground?

Meerkat? tongue.gif

10-06-2004, 07:27 AM

This fellow draws some nice eye candy for armchair builders. Seems to me a lot of natural stone work would be cheap, labour intense, blend with the natural surroundings and look great, cool in summer and a able to store solar and fired heat from a wood stove in the winter.


10-06-2004, 07:32 AM

Jack Heinlen
10-06-2004, 10:40 AM
Hey, thanks.

I'll look for the Susanka books, and thanks Bruce for the rec of an architect, I may look him up. It is a complex topic. Thanks Jim for the insights, and everyone for the feedback.

It's difficult, this winter coming, to contemplate 1200 dollars for oil, when I know, properly designed, a house here could burn no oil, and a modicum of wood. And I could build it myself, with a helper, with mostly what is right here.

Need to get going on it. You've all been most gracious. I appreciate it.

P.S. Underground, or partly, is not an option. I'm atop bedrock.

[ 10-06-2004, 11:42 AM: Message edited by: Jack Heinlen ]

Dave Williams
10-06-2004, 01:24 PM

Consider what Jim Goodine has to say. My resume reads much like his. I live and build on the East Slope of the N. Cascades and the climate may be similar to yours. Keep the house tight, well insulated, give it some mass (a slab floor is good) to hold that solar gain. Design the overhangs on the south to prevent much solar gain during the warmer months. Contrary to some thinking, at your latitude maybe a narrow covered porch on the south. The sun will be so high during summer that it will still be in shade. During the winter that low sun will sneak in under the eaves and warm you floor. Have the ability to ventilate well when needed and desired but you'll find you don't need as much venting as you think . That mass and good insulation goes a long way towards keeping things nice and cool during the summer. Open her up at night and close her down during the heat of the day.

What exposure do you have? At that latitude in Maine, exposure to the south with shade during summer from the east and west would be ideal. In the winter the sun will be so far south that the east/west shade will not limit solar gain onto your mass and in summer you will appreciate the shade from that high sun.

If your're thinking around 1000 square ft. I would if possible keep it on one floor depending on your site. Stair wells are expensive and consume floor space on not one but two floors.

Hope this helps.

Here's to kindness,

10-06-2004, 01:29 PM
One more to dream on..


10-06-2004, 01:48 PM