Category Archives: construction

A word to the wise when building a shed

So you want to build a shed or a play house or a tree house or something like that. Good on ya! I read a couple of books on the subject as I was getting this shed house up and going. One thing they all say is “check local building codes” which sounds like the sort of cover-your-ass boilerplate that the publisher made them put in. But there’s a lot of wisdom in it because if you know the rules, and follow them, you could end up saving hassles down the road.

The stilt house is going up in a small backyard. And it’s a giant structure in that small backyard. There are neighbors just over the fence, and we’re all nice and cosy… their trees drop leaves (hell, one of their ivy plants came over the fence and killed the one tree in my yard which is why I built this thing on stilts in the first place). This thing is a part of the neighborhood, like it or not. We talked to some of the neighbors about it in general terms, but even I was a bit surprised at how big it looks there in the yard.

And here is where reading the regulations comes in. Our town actually has a very nice write up of the municipal code concerning accessory buildings, in plane text (and in Comic Sans, so you know it’s user friendly, natch). So we’ve got a definition as “A detached, subordinate building, the use of which is clearly incidental to that of the main building or to the use of the land.” Check.

accessory buildings

More important is stuff like “If… will exceed 120 square feet in floor area, a Building Permit is required; if 120 square feet or less, exempt.” Hmm. My original shed house  would have been pushing this limit. Another critical one is the roof height and offset. The walls must be either less than 6 inches from the property line, or more than 3 feet. Since I have a 6″ cinderblock wall in my yard, I can’t really go to the narrow limit, even if I cared to, so I made sure it was 3′ away from the line. I don’t actually know where my property line is, but I gave a few inches from the inside of the fence and called that good. Then there’s the roof height: 12′ from the foundation. Again, the shed house would have pushed over this, which is the thing that killed that plan more than anything. There are some other regulations about doors and windows as a % of wall size and in relation to the property line, but they are all simple to understand.

Once the poles were in, we went looking for where the roof and floor should go. Basically, we started at a roof of 11’11” and worked down from there. The poles were set so as to be far enough from the edge. The windows won’t be too big, and the floor layout is 64 sqft. All good.

Back to the knowing all these regulations, and following them: when the building inspector showed up at the house the day after we started construction, it was nice to know the rules were on our side. My wife was running out the door, but she waved him into the backyard and told him to measure away. When I called him later to follow up, he had some serious advice about covering up the pressure treated posts to keep the kids from getting splinters, but as far as the house itself, we were good to go.

I’m sure this will blend in as time goes on; in the meantime, the kids like it looming in their field of view. I look forward to them looming over me as I garden or bbq in the yard.

Stilt house gets real

For those of you who’ve been following along, you know the tree house has been bubbling along for almost a year. Today, it got real. Actually, reality set in a little while ago, with a reminder from Grandpa John, that little girls don’t need a tree house their whole lives. Time to get it started. I realized a while ago that this was going to be a big task for me to do myself, maybe more than I can handle. I can build a lot of stuff, but I’m a scrawny dude with a bad back. And pretty sloppy as far as woodworking goes. Stuff that a pro can do in minutes takes me a week of searching the internet to figure out. So I’ve been looking for a contractor to help. I found a few, but they all shot down my two-story shed plans as being in the $10K range. A couple weren’t even willing to do the 8′ x 8′ stilt house for a reasonable amount. Then my brother connected me with someone he’d had do great work… he had 2 kids and a real sense for what I was trying to accomplish. Since it had dragged on this long, I was willing to wait until he needed work… here’s a tip: if you ever have a little project that pro’s aren’t excited to take on, wait until the time between Thanksgiving and Christmas. No one likes to have a remodel in process around the holidays, but remodeling contractors like to buy their kids Christmas presents. Some of the guys who wouldn’t return my calls before started calling back mid November.

So Billy came down and we drew some sketches. I called a guy I’d met in the Home Depot parking lot and 30 minutes later, the concrete started to disappear.

concrete busting

Then the shed disappeared…

shed demo shed demo 2

And pretty soon it was time to build. Billy came down again, for the weekend this time… We did some more talking, then hit the lumber yard and Home Depot. We bought a lot of wood. Billy thought the 6×6 support posts were overkill, but I liked the look. We also went to Urban Ore to see if we could find some recycled doors and windows. We did, but none of them were ideal. And since I’m paying him by the day, I’m not sure it makes sense to spend the extra time trying to make some old piece work.

lumber ready to go

Then the digging started. We originally planned to get the posts a full 3′ into the ground, but I can’t say many of them really hit that depth. The tree roots were brutal, and the soil in the nastiest clay I’ve ever dug. But by the time the sun went down, four 16′ 6x6s were concreted into the ground.

tree house posts up

Tomorrow we’ll start drilling in the 4×6 floor supports. We also have to run back to Home Depot for the panel pieces…

So, to recap:

– 6×6 pressure treated posts in the ground

– frame of 4×6 pt holding up the floor.

– stud walls, unfinished inside, cheap Hardie siding outside. We’ll see how the money looks at the end… if there’s enough left, I’d like to put shingles on.

– roof with be 2×4, attached to the main posts. Sheathed with OSB and then some cheap tar paper roofing.

– front will have  a 3′ deck out of redwood

– Front door, front window, 2 side windows, skylight?

Cost thus far:

$730 for main lumber, including nice redwood decking from Ashby Lumber

$300 for concrete, studs, nails and Simpson hardware at Home Depot

Stilt house

Having realized that there was no way I could afford a house with a totally built shed beneath, I’m now focused on getting the house up top done… then I’ll put some storage lockers down below. And maybe  a chicken coop.

Plan is for a simple ladder up the right side (as facing it) and a fire pole down the other side. Thinking there will be some eves, but have to see if I can afford them.

I’d also like to use pretty stout supports (6×6) so I can hang  a hammock off one side. Probably bury pressure treated wood 3′ in the ground.

stilt house v1 right dim stilt house v1 left dim

Treehouse Update

The treehouse project has been on the back burner a bit. We had an arborist come over who basically refused to do anything besides cut the tree all the way down. The man had some good points: the tree itself might (probably) be rotten, especially on the side where no live branches remain. The weight of the house would make it worse… blah, blah. I’m cooking up a new plan to get much of the weight off the tree itself. Everyone keeps suggesting just putting it on stilts, but damn it, that’s not a tree house.

So I found some dude… he did some digging on our front yard (my wife found him mowing the lawn down the street… he and his brother work incredibly hard for not a lot of money). He came over and offered to dig all sorts of roots and stumps out of my yard for $750. He also agreed to prune the treehouse tree and hack the ivy off…

As a reminder, here’s what it has looked like up ’til now



Half way through the day, here’s an update. That little tuft sticking out is a still-living bit of the original camphor tree…


By the time Milton was done, here’s the stump in all it’s glory. You can’t see it in this picture, but I had him leave that little tuft. It can only help prevent rot and I can always lop it off later.


This shot should give an example of how gnarly the ivy was…



Anyway, now it’s time to get serious about the design. My plan is to have it start just above that lump out to the right, about 8′ up so I can walk under it.

Picnic Table Ideas – v1

I need a picnic table for the backyard… we had one out front of our house for a long time, and it was pretty sweet. Now I’ve got a nice yard, but nowhere to sit and enjoy it. I’m struggling whether to buy or build. Time is short and I’ve got a lot of projects (e.g., tree house) that I want to do. I found some dude on craigslist who claims he’ll make me one out of “white wood” whatever the hell that means, for about the same as my buying crap redwood at home depot. He’ll even deliver.

On the other hand, building is fun, and I’ll get a much better product. I think I can build one cheaply if I use recycled lumber. The Reuse People have old doug fir for $0.20/board foot. That solves one of my problems with buying studs at home depot, too… that it will be heavy as hell, then warp as it dries out.

I’ve found some nice ideas for them… one of my favorites is this one: I really like the look,

and there are some practical matters, too. For instance, with the standard type that has boards just running the length of the table, the ends can get pretty out of alignment. Suddenly, it’s hard to eat at the end. I’m hoping the frame, in addition to looking cool, will help stabilize the top over time.

Then I saw this one:

and realized I had some thinking to do. I mean, the top one is cool, but this could be even cooler (no pun inteded). And not just for beers (though, awesome) but for art supplies, for condiments, for silverware, hello!

I don’t want to follow the domesticated-engineer design whole hog, though. I’m worried that the straight legs will get squirrely after not too much time of getting moved around the back yard. I also worry that the 1×4 skirt all the way around will be a hassle for some people.

So now I want to combine the two… the thing I’m mulling right now is that the instructables one has a pair of braces going from the legs up to the middle brace, right where the storage area would be. I suspect that, if I think about it carefully, I can come up with some way that the cooler support box can serve as the brace support as well. Maybe two braces from each leg that run up along the edge of the planter box support?


Need to figure out some heights… just taking a random sample off the interwebs, it looks like 30″ for the table and 16″ for the bench might be about standard…

More Treehouse thoughts

This treehouse project is becoming kind of consuming. I thought it was going to be an easy: chop the top off the tree, build a platform, add a house, have the kids think I’m awesome.

Few hiccups. First thing was the tree guy looked at the tree and didn’t think much of the plan. As a biologist, I have to concede he has a point. His worry is that there are only a couple of scraggly branches still alive, and they’re all on one side of the tree. We have no idea when the rest of the tree succumbed to the ivy, so the wood and roots on the dead side may already have been rotting for 8 years. I talked to my friend Justin, a man I trust wherever building shit is concerned. He told me a dead stump could easily be sound for 15 years… I mentioned the ivy killing most of it already and he said “oh, yeah, that’s not good.” If Justin thinks it’s not good, I’m convinced.

So, new plan. Instead of sticking the house on top of the tree, it will now just use the tree as one of the supports, with the bulk of it supported by beams sunk into concrete at the back. This has a bunch of benefits: the house will stabilize the tree, instead of being a big blob on the end of a stick, wiggling the tree around and hastening its demise; the tree will be outside of the house, so I can actually leave the live branch at 11′ to try to keep the roots alive a bit longer; plus, the house will be farther back in the yard, casting less shade.

Now the idea is for something with a cool deck. And now I’m starting to think of all sorts of crazy stuff. Here are 3 possible layouts. In each of them, the tree is the round thing at the front. The  L-shaped thing at the back is a cinderblock wall that tops out about 6′. The square shape to the back will be the house, and the curved shape around the tree will be a deck.

layout tree at  front 2014 01 09

So, here it is square to the wall… This is far and away the easiest way to do this. I don’t have to plan too much. I sink the posts back at the wall and then, with a tree and 2 posts,  I build a house.

On the other hand, though, this will not look as good in the yard. It would be way better if it were turned a little. I could do this:

layout tree at  front rotate 2014 01 09Which will look a bit better in the yard and put the posts against the wall. Kind of a pain, though. I have to make sure that the posts are square with and centered on the tree… but still, very doable. The angle sucks, though. I’m no architect, but those angles are weird and too shallow.

Here would be the ideal:

layout tree at  front xtraRotate 2014 01 09But, boy-howdy, it would be a pain. I’d have to sink 3 posts, which now have to be exactly right. I have 5 walls inside instead of 4. And then what the hell does the roof look like?

I’ve been thinking of doing a peaked roof anyway. The roof has to be 6′ for me to work in it comfortably, but it will be a tall feature over the garden. A peaked roof could be 5′ at the edges and 7′ at the center, which should look less imposing. But trying to do a peaked roof on that last angled look? Not sure how that would work. I welcome comments, for sure.

Ok, here are some treehouse building resources I’ve found. These are mostly for me to locate later.

Here’s a deck load calculator that is super helpful:

When you think about it, a treehouse is just a deck with a structure on it. I need to find a good source to calculate the weight of the wood, but this has made me re-think some ideas like using 2×6 TNG instead of 3/4″ plywood as the deck. I know the TNG would be so much nicer, but it would weigh a shit-ton so I’d better be aware of what that means for my support posts. I wish I knew a source for telephone poles… they would be such awesome supports for the back that it would be almost like 3 trees. As it is, I’m probably scrounging surplus 6×6’s and wishing I had something bigger.

I really need to figure out the siding. So many of the best treehouses end up looking like shacks because the outside is plywood. The structure is a thing of beauty, but the sheating is shit. I’d like to avoid that fate, but then the weight starts to crop up. At least I have an out: in a year or 2, without serious work, the ivy/blackberries will seriously overgrow this thing anyway.


This site has some great treehouse examples:

they make me realize I’m far from the most obsessed treehouse builder out there.

The other thing I see are some great reclaimed lumber places. I wish I had the money to buy some of their old timbers for my beams.

Maybe it’s better. I can only imagine what I’d say about the pretentious twerp who bought some 1892 farmouse timber for his kids’ treehouse.

Tree House

– UPDATE 12/28/2013  — Scroll down to read back story

Lots of great comments, both here and on Facebook. I’ve come up with a much better design for the base which is so simple, I’m sorry I didn’t think of it myself. I found an article in Popular Mechanics where someone with more space than me built an amazing house. His used a grid floor that will be a lot stiffer and also resist the torsional loads better. box floor 2013 12 28 v3

Those will be 2×8’s on the bottom and 2×6 for the floor joists. Should do the trick. I’ll cut the end off one of them for the trap door. There will also be corner pieces going to a lower place on the tree, but I didn’t draw those.

Lots of comments suggest that I shouldn’t kill the tree. There are a lot of good arguments on that side. The most convincing is that dead wood will get termites and rot (I can attest to that given that I spent a bundle of money repairing that very problem when I moved in). The flip side, though, is that I may not care… I bet it will take 10 years to weaken the tree  much, by which time my then-high-school aged kids may not care. If it happens rapidly, it will be easy to stabilize the house with some steel supports.

The other big argument against keeping the tree is a design one. There is a living branch that is sticking out that could probably keep the tree aliveliving branchThe problem is that it is 10′ up… so giving it a little space, that would put the base of the house 11′ up the tree. This may surprise you to hear that I’m not actually bothered by having the kids climb 11′ up a rope ladder to get to their house. I am, however, a bit worried about the aesthetic of a 6′ high house 11′ up a tree… it would pretty much dominate the yard… in fact, it would be taller than most of my house. Not so good. There is another live branch going straight up that might be able to go through the roof. However, it’s small enough that it will grow pretty rapidly and we’ll have to adjust the roof to accommodate it.



— Original post 12/27/2013 —

I’ve got this ivy tree in the back yard. I don’t actually know what kind of tree lives underneath it, but all I see now is ivy. About 30′ tall, and really ugly. As part of the backyard redo, this is coming down.
Now, one of the first complaints we heard from the girls about the new house was “where is the hammock going to go?” which is a legit question. The hammock was one of their favorite places to play back in Friday Harbor. People have suggested that we buy one of those little hammock stands, but those people don’t understand that when my kids talk about “swinging in the hammock” they mean pile 5-6 friends in and see if they can get someone to push them all the way over the top. This worked at FHL where we merely chose the closest pair of 75′ fir trees which were used to surviving gale-force winds. A cheap steel stand would last less than an hour and might hurt someone as it fell apart.

This led me to think that cutting the tree all the way down might be a missed opportunity. There isn’t a matched tree, of course, but there is a cinder block wall that seems sturdy enough for a big anchor bolt.

So thinking about chopping down the tree, but leaving the stump got me thinking: what if I topped it about 8′ up? That would leave me a tree that maybe I could put a tree house on? We had a landscape designer take a look at our yard, and when I threw out this idea, she loved it; the drawings thus include a tree house in the yard, I just have to figure out how to make it happen. Of course, the designer was a little skeved out about trusting a dead tree to hold kids, so she drew in a load bearing steel frame. Um, that doesn’t sound like a tree-house to me.

This is presenting some interesting design challenges that I’d love some help thinking through. The trunk is pretty stout, probably 24+” at the bottom, and maybe 16″ at a height of 8′. It’s a little hard to tell because there’s about 4″ of thick ivy vines wrapped all the way around it. I can see a few live branches sticking out at the top of the tree, so I assume it’s all live wood.

trunk close up

trunk close up

I’ve sketched up a quick idea of what I’m thinking it might look like:
v2 perpective
For scale, the sassy-looking model is about 4’8″… I’m thinking an 8’x8′ platform with a height of about 6′ at the front with a sloping roof to 5′ at the back. I had a lot of ideas about a peaked roof, but a flat one seems more within my skill set. One thing that is awesome in the bay area are these recycling building products yards. I can buy casement windows for about $20 if I’m not too concerned about the fit or double-panedness. I saw a stack of domed skylights sitting in the corner that weren’t being treated like they were valuable, so I’m hoping I can get one of those for cheap, too. I’m even thinking I can get all the wood this way: they have stuff like old redwood studs for $0.50 / foot.

The big question in my head is how to attach this thing to the tree. My first thought is to put a ring around the tree and stick some supports out from it. Then I started thinking it might need some braces going down lower for when kids are sitting way out at the corners… I’ve only shown one on here because they are a pain to draw… but imagine a brace from each corner going 3-4′ down the tree.

v2 undercarriage

The other issue is that we get some serious wind through here… 15-25 mph is a standard afternoon… because the houses are so closely spaced, it’s less in the yard, but still.

Looking at this diagram from the bottom, though, it occurs to me that the joints at the ring will be a weak point… would I be better to notch the top of the trunk so I could have a brace go straight from one corner to the other?

Then there is the matter of the walls and roof. I’m assuming I don’t need 2×4 studs at 16″ for a 5′ x 8′ wall, but what do I need? I’ve been thinking the platform will be 2×6 around the edge with 3/4″ plywood over the top. That doesn’t give me much to nail studs into at the bottom, so I’d need a base plate?

I was also thinking of just having a 2×6 – 2×4 post in each corner (like on Eliza’s bunk bed for those who’ve seen that).

v2 pillar

I’m guessing 4 of those posts could easily support the roof, then the walls would just need the odd stud to keep them from bowing (and these could just get tied into the plywood without a base plate).

I’ve got no idea on the roof other than a rim of 2x4s with some joists and then some plywood and tar paper. I don’t know how much it needs to attach to the walls as long as it’s tight enough that it won’t lift off in the wind? I’m also assuming it don’t care if there is space between the walls and the roof.

Anyway, I’d love to hear any and all thoughts. Give me a call, shoot me an email or leave comments below.