Build on Your Land: Framing through Rough-ins

    The most exciting part of the custom home building process for the owner is framing. There's lots of visible progress and mistakes aren't readily apparent so you're not stressed. You get excited and think, "At this rate, we'll be done in no time!"

    You'll see lots of people working, and suddenly what was an ugly concrete slab becomes the outline of a home. It's fascinating to see the process of what goes into building your home. You start to imagine what the inside will look like, where the furniture will go, where your kids will sleep, and other stuff like that.

    But here are a few things to keep in mind about this stage of the process.

    The imperfect nature of lumber

    As a structural material, lumber is very different from many of the materials you're used to seeing in consumer products. Unlike steel, aluminum, or plastic, lumber is harvested directly from a source that varies greatly in shape, size, color, and internal structure. It is irregular compared to manufactured materials.

    Its shape and dimensions vary slightly from piece to piece, and it even shrinks, swells, and warps with changes in humidity. When used to frame walls, ceilings, and roofs, that slight variation will be visible. We tend to expect near perfection like with the tight tolerances we expect from our cars. That's just not realistic with lumber.

    Building codes and structure

    The lumber used to frame houses is graded according to standards set forth by the lumber industry and the international body that writes and maintains building codes. The grades (grain patterns and overall quality) and species (what kind of tree it comes from) of lumber are primarily used to classify lumber under broad structural categories. The building code then dictates what grade and species may be used based on the structural load requirements for each purpose.

    #1. Home builders consider loads for lumber.

    For example, wall studs are subject to mostly axial, or straight up-and-down, loads that carry ceilings, roofs, and sometimes upper floors. They are also subject to wind loads. The various loads (snow, wind, and seismic) vary from region to region within the country, and there are maps within the code book that allow the builder to determine what loads to consider when framing the house.

    #2. Home builders stick to the code.

    The code book will dictate size and spacing of studs based on length and grade. For example, a 2x4 wall framed with stud-grade studs that supports a roof and ceiling may be built with studs spaced two feet apart. If that same wall supports an upper floor, the spacing must be reduced to 16 inches. You might be tempted to think if two-foot spacing is good, then 16-inch spacing must be better, right?

    So why not make your house stronger by insisting your builder space the studs at 16 inches even if the code doesn't require it? First of all, it's a waste of money. Second, on exterior walls, it's a waste of energy. Every stud is a bridge for heat to cross and a place where there is no insulation, which makes your house less efficient. If you're into waste, then by all means fill your walls with as much wood as possible. It won't make your house stronger, but it will make it more expensive and inefficient.

    Many people see the building code as the minimum standard, but there is a large factor of safety built in already, and it's based on engineering, testing, and history. Think about it: Have you ever seen a house that just fell down? My father began building homes in 1964. I can drive by every one of those homes built that first year and find a family enjoying that home today, and the building codes today are orders of magnitude more stringent than they were back then.

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    Dried-in and Rough Installations

    Once the roof shingles are on and the windows and exterior doors are installed, the house is considered dried-in. That means rain won't have a major effect on the interior. Now it's time to begin the rough installations of electrical and heat and air conditioning.

    The plumbing rough installation will likely begin as well, although plumbing can begin before dry-in because it's plumbing, and if it hurts your plumbing to get wet, then you probably have bigger problems.

    Rough installations are when the rapid progress that was so exciting to watch seems to slow down drastically. The wiring and installation of fixture boxes, a furnace, and ductwork is methodical, slow work, and it isn't nearly as visually dramatic as seeing that frame go up.

    Be prepared for what seems like a slowdown.

    It hasn't really slowed down, it just appears that way. You also have three contractors, and maybe four if a separate contractor installs low-voltage cabling such as phone, tv, and alarm wiring. Your builder will probably stagger the schedule of the contractors' start time on the job, and sometimes their own work schedules could cause them to leave a gap between the completion of one rough-in and the start of another.

    Inspection Time

    Once the rough installations are complete, the city or county inspector will take a look at the plumbing, heat and air, electrical installations, and framing structure to make sure everything complies with the building code. This doesn't happen in all cases, because not all locations in Oklahoma have building inspectors.

    There are two main things to be aware of here. First, there is probably a different inspector for each discipline, so there may be four different people to schedule an inspection time with. I've seen it take more than a week for an inspector to make it out to a job, and I've heard of delays of several weeks. Second, sometimes building inspectors feel the need to justify their paychecks by never passing an inspection the first time. They'll find any reason, no matter how petty, to fail an inspection.

    Never believe that your contractor did a poor job because he/she failed a city inspection—it's the nature of the business.

    Roll with it.

    Once inspections are complete, progress will begin to move again, and things will take shape rapidly. Next time, we'll talk about insulation and drywall.

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