Plans, Drafting & Design

do it yourself building

Tim Sherno: I Want To Build This Small Home But Not For Me, For Everyone Else


The Ladder House

“You have to heat the whole house ‘ya know, not just the rooms you use.” My 16 year old whacks me with a big learning moment. “Same goes for A.C.” (Dang it -he’s right!) (Again.) (This is happening way too often.) That moment was the beginning of this journey. 

Fast forward through a bunch’a learning moments a lot’a research and a heap'a reading a ton’a soul search and just plain searching PLUS something a co-worker said in passing one day and -wammo' the idea of small got big. Huge in fact. HUUUGE. 

What was said in passing? “I don’t think I’ll be able to afford a house until I’m 40.”  The person who said this was 25 at the time. Imagine being 25 and saying that! Imagine being the parent of a 25 year old and hearing that!  

Fact: In 2013 when the average college undergraduate was handed their diploma they were greeted by $30,000 (1) in debt as they left the stage. Congratulations! Welcome to the real world. 

Oh and there’s this: According to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, the average starting salary for the graduating class of 2013 was $45,327 a year. Ouch! Good luck with that. 

Keep in mind that these young folks are paying rent as they pay off their college dept. How much of that rent money are they ever going to see again? None of it. Any tax breaks from rent? Nope. It’s worse than that. There are different income to debt ratios used to qualify for a home loan -none of them exactly favorable to the income debt ratio described above. (Banker: How much student debt do you have? Oh! Goodness me! Well ok then, how much do you earn? I’m sorry, could you repeat that? That’s what I thought you said. Here’s a free pen. Have a nice day.”) 

So there's debt and salary and one more fact...  it feels like piling on, but what the heck! Fact: The average home price in the United States in 2013 was$265,000. (3) 

What about that $265k house? Here comes the biggie. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the average house (or median house, I get the two mixed up all the time) in 2012 was 2,306 square feet and climbing! (4)  I think it’s safe to assume it’s actually larger than 2,306. I won’t quibble. Yes we could have a spirited discussion about wether or not anyone really needs that much house but it would be purely academic because most recent college graduates can’t afford that much house so the debate would be like arguing over riding english or western on a unicorn. (I’d say western, that’d be cool!) 

Things have changed. I bought my first house in my 20’s and it endures as the single best financial decision I’ve ever made. It started me on my way, saved me money on my taxes every year and actually made me money when I cashed in the equity earned by good old #1 to buy #2, and #3 and so on. The American dream looks like a house but in reality it’s not a house at all, it’s a ladder. A ladder that helps young people climb into the middle class, save money and years from now retire.  

The problem is that the lowest rung on the ladder is out of reach for too many young people just starting out. 

Previous generations graduated from college and started saving to reach that lowest rung, but that’s not what’s happening now. Now recent grads are using what could be home-downpayment-money to pay off existing college debt while at the same time pouring money down the drain in rent. “I won’t be able to afford a house until I’m 40.” (Oh, I get it now.) (6) 

Simply put; students are graduating with higher debt, starting salaries haven’t kept pace to help balance that debt and houses are bigger and cost more. 

There’s only one way out of this mess and the best part is, it comes with a lot of upside.

If you can’t make the budget fit the house then make the house fit the budget. In other words, create a new lower reachable rung on the housing ladder. That’s the idea behind The Ladder House. A house designed to be affordable, designed to be beautiful and inviting, and one of the biggest design features isn’t visible in the plans. What is it? 

Drumroll. Flash of light. The answer is: a mortgage. (Blink) (Crickets) Mortgage? Boring. Yes, but follow along. Financing a home with a traditional mortgage comes with a several financial benefits (a.k.a. money bennies.) Like what? The mortgage interest deduction, a financial vehicle to build credit, equity and the promise of a return on investment. Hmm, not so boring. The Ladder House is a permanent home and so it’s eligible for a mortgage with all the money bennies included. But there’s more.

The design itself features two private bedroom floors (top and bottom) each with a full bathroom. Between the private bedroom floors is a shared living space with a full kitchen. The three-floor plan creates the option for an occupant/owner to have a renter who helps further reduce monthly out of pocket expenses.  

And because the house is small and well insulated energy costs are squeezed down from slurps to sips.  

Now include state of the art electronics that allow all lighting, appliances, heating and cooling, everything to be operated and adjusted with an app and you end up with a house that serves people, not the other way around. 

Turning a house into a home. The concept is exciting, but that doesn’t mean anything if the house itself isn’t enticing. The good news —just look at it! The Ladder House is a knock-out. Ample natural light, space planning that apportions square footage according to use not tradition, a clever kitchen that doubles as home base, lighting throughout the house that creates different mood/use zones. It’s worth saying again, “a house that serves people, not the other way around.”

Now consider the additional savings that come from building multiple units on a housing development scale —the result is a real, viable, brand new lower rung on that ladder that leads to the American Dream. A community of Ladder Homes. 

To share a vision you have to have something to show people and that’s the immediate goal of The Ladder House.  Build one. Put people in it. Let other people see people living in it. Let those other people go back to their bosses and investors and tell them what they’ve seen and hopefully get one of those investors to work with a forward thinking bank and create the first community of homes designed to help young people reach the American Dream. 

I offer heartfelt thanks to Shawn Dehner, he’s the guy who designed The Ladder House from the basement up. (7) Additional applause for Shawn for creating and hosting this website to help advance the small-house movement. (8) Finally a full-on standing ovation for Shawn for making designs available for free. 

I want to believe that 20 years from now small starter homes will be everywhere and recent grads and recent retirees will live side by side and enjoying the benefits of smaller living. When that day comes the only question left to ask will be, “What took us so long?”  

That will be then, this is now and someone has to be first.  If you’re reading this then you’re already part of this movement, heck, you may be considering re-sizing (right-sizing) your life. (9) People say it’s liberating. I’ll let you know. Thanks for reading. Good luck building. 


FOOTNOTES. (Footnotes?) Yes, footnotes!! 

(1) Look it up yourself, there are tons of sources on this one. 

(2) National Association of Colleges and Employers website.

(3) U.S. Census Bureau.   

(4) More Census Bureau. 

(5) Oh right! Retirement. Imagine how much easier retirement would be if it included the option of a smaller more affordable, more efficient, lower maintenance house? 

(6) And keep in mind it’s the same problem for young people who don’t go to college. And single moms or dads. And the newly divorced. Or widowed. 

(7) Shawn is the guy who designed all the houses on this site. He’s talented. Nice. And a visionary. 

(8) Don’t say ‘tiny-house,’ they're on wheels and can’t be mortgaged. I say ‘right-sized-house.’

(9) I tend to write a lot. Sorry, but it’s been building up in me for a while.  

Island House: Plumbing, Wiring, Insulation

Island HouseJamie4 Comments

The weather is outside now!

Lots of AFCI breaker required in the latest code update. Costs have jumped from about $8 per breaker to $50 or more, staggering.

A lot of time has passed since our last progress report and it’s time to update. I don’t know exactly how I got so out of date with my blog entries on the subject, since progress on the house is all I really think about!

Here’s what we’ve been doing. Plumbing rough in, wiring rough in, priming and painting siding, seeing the insulation installed, mostly siding the garage and having the propane tank installed, putting up the furring strips for the wiring chase inside and continuing with preparation for the all important electrical inspection.

The plumbing rough in is basically done. We are going to have it inspected shortly, along with the insulation. Just a little more abs pipe to hook upin the kitchen. We did an inside water test and all the Pex lines are holding their water!  No leaks, no problems. We bought a little thing called a “test ball” for our DWV (Drain, Waste and Vents) test and will be able to have that done shortly. We hooked up the septic system to the power source and were delighted to hear it humming along pumping - it has been in ground for 6 years so we were a little anxious about it even though people told us not to be. (Why do we tell each other not to worry about things that are nearly impossible not to worry about?).

We spent four days working outside while our insulation was being done. Our insulation consists of a “flash and batt” method where a few inches of spray foam are put in and then covered over with Knauf Eco-Batts, which we used on the Beekeeper’s and like very much. The house is warmer already, feels wonderful! The first two days we worked from home as the spray foam was going in and the roar of the generator was too loud (and we were in the way). We had to suddenly move out of our rental (story started badly but ended well) and thankfully the spray foaming coincided well with this inconvenience. When we got back on site, we worked outdoors for a few days hanging the siding I spent the previous week priming and painting with my new Wagner power paint sprayer. That was a fabulous tool. I am generally a hand painter, and still prefer trim painting by hand, but the siding is an enormous project and I was incredibly pleased with the way the simple little gadget worked. I’ll be reviewing it shortly and will leave further comments till then. We had the siding ready and painted and needed to side the garage so that the propane tank could be installed. The siding is 8 inch cedar bevel and looks gorgeous. The yellow is rich and sunny, a perfect antidote to a dark day. Today the skies grew heavy and gray, poured rain for a couple of hours. The brightness of the garage was a joy to see though the kitchen windows, it actually made me feel happy just seeing it out there. I heartily suggest painting your house yellow if you live in a northern clime. The siding is easy to work with, very light weight. When time and weather permit, we will hang the rest of what we have on the house and probably finish up in the Spring time as we don’t have enough siding on hand and the weather is slipping into non painting weather. Still and all, never in our builds have we managed to get to siding at all in the first year, so this feels like a great accomplishment!

We have now returned to wiring work. Shawn has almost all of the wire drawn through the house and taken to the panel. This week he will work on cleaning up and tying up the box. It’s somewhat difficult this time around as the electrical code has changed and now requires AFCI (Arc Fault Circuit Interruptors) on every 20 amp circuit that serves habitable space. Not only are these AFCI’s expensive, but sometimes they have to be combined with a GFCI (Ground Fault Circuit Interruptor). It’s different than our last wiring work and somewhat complicated by the fact that our island resources for these circuits don’t exist and so we have to order online. That’s not generally a problem, but sometimes during a project it takes getting into it to realize what you’ve forgotten to order. Plumbing jobs are famous for this Murphy’s Law related issue, and this electrical job should experience the effects of a heightened Murphy’s Law as island resources are limited. Tomorrow Shawn will assess his requirements to the best of his ability and see what else he needs. A fair amount he’s already ordered, so at least a solid start can be made. Today we had a short day and finished installing the wiring chase/furring strips for drywall installation and also installed the hangers for recessed lighting throughout most of the house. Tomorrow we are going to drop the ceiling slightly in the kitchen and install the remainder of them.

We’re also having someone come and give us a bid on helping us to install the siding on the dormers. We have tried getting up there to do the papering and the siding of them and it is nearly impossible for us as it involves constantly going up and down to do the cutting and with our limited tools for working at heights, this is a real nightmare. We’ll see what he thinks of the job (sounded enthusiastic when he heard it was a small job and he only works with cedar, so so far so good) and hopefully this can be done shortly. We felt a good sense of relief at the idea of just hiring this work out, it was one of the last areas where work at heights was going to pose some real problems for us and slow us down immensely. Some jobs are definitely worth hiring out to professionals. You simultaneously support the locally skilled economy and save yourself a ton of time and stress.

The next two weeks will include finishing electrical and calling for inspection (hopefully not this Wednesday but the following), having our final plumbing and mechanical inspection, and having our insulation inspection. Then we can move on to preparing for temporary occupancy, ordering/installing plumbing fixtures, drywall and finally flooring. We are aiming for a move in date of December 1st. Let’s see how we do. We’ve got about 50 days to go.

Thanks as always for reading along...

Island House: finished roof, windows and doors

Island HouseShawn A. Dehner9 Comments

This week we saw our roof assembly completed and not too soon as our seasonal rain pattern has started establishing itself. For now we're still enjoying some sunshine, if cooler, and this has allowed us to make progress on getting the cedar bevel siding painted so we'll be able to install it as the season gets colder; crisp, sunny days will be great weather for hanging siding.

In addition, this week we'll finish the rough-in plumbing and electrical.

With our roof shingling completed and Marvin Integrity black windows installed we're finally closed-in.

The clipped gables take on their own appeal now that the roofing assembly is finished.

Jamie has been enjoying the unexpected sunshine and cool temperatures. She's been busy priming and painting the cedar bevel siding and she's nearly done!

Plenty of southern exposure for our French doors.

The Asian influence on the Ladybug House. Looks like a Samurai's helmet!