My First Electrical Work, But First I Build A Workbench — Now How Did THAT Happen?

As I’ve mentioned before several times on this blog, all major projects will take some unexpected turns. I had a good head of steam going with finishing the front yard, but, in the back of my mind, I had one piece of unfinished business. When the inspector came by back in December to OK the burial of services, we discussed the ground for the electrical system. He suggested that I check what kind of grounding system I already had in place, and I might be able to use it with no further work on my part. Well, to do that, I had to remove the drywall from the back of the main electrical panel, and to do that, I had to take off all of my tools from my pegboard and unload my workbench. So, because that was a big job, I kept putting it off. But now that I was getting ready to pour concrete, I had to get this resolved. I surely did not want to have to bust up newly poured concrete!

The first step was to unload and dismantle my workbench. It was kind of a POS to begin with because I used cheap prefab cabinets made of fiberboard. Maybe OK for a rental unit, but the cardboard drawer bottoms really didn’t hold up to heavy loads like tools and boxes of metal fasteners. So it was destined, at some point, to go. But what to put in its place? I mean, any self-respecting DIY’er needs a workbench! All kidding aside, your workbench is an essential tool, if for no other reason to lay out your work and materials. So, now I had to build a workbench. I wanted to get this done quickly, but the more I thought about it, I did not want to just build a “throw-away” bench. Was there a design out there that was relatively quick and easy to build, but would be something that I could keep and use for years to come? The short answer was yes. In fact, there were plenty of them. The Internet is chock full of designs, but also, because I use a 3D modeling program called SketchUp, there is a tremendous online presence which has a bunch of pre-designed models just waiting to be used. Turns out that woodworkers use SketchUp a lot, so I was in luck.

I found a really nice design by Tom Caspar of the American Woodworker magazine. This was a very functional workbench, made of common lumber you could get from a big box store, and it had a number of features of a traditional master carpenter’s bench, including a large face vise, a tail vise with provisions for bench dogs, and a tool tray. I added a couple of shelves and some retractable casters, and voila! A functional, inexpensive, and easy to make workbench. OK, well inexpensive is relative. I probably spent about $500 on materials if you include the vise hardware and casters, but I see these “works-of-art” workbenches made of hardwoods and fancy hardware that sell for $2,000. I’ve also known other woodworkers that pay that much for just the raw materials (good hardwood is expensive). Actually, I don’t understand why there would ever be a market for a pre-made master woodworker’s bench. If you have the woodworking skills and interest to actually use a bench like this, well, you would just make it, right? I mean, isn’t that what woodworking is all about? Unless you’re just a pretender. Some things will always remain a mystery to me.

Easy to make is also relative. I have a pretty well-appointed woodworking shop with a table saw, drill press, jointer, planer, bandsaw, lathe, and dust collection system (ShopSmith). (I really like my ShopSmith and have used it ever since I bought it back in 1990 — I think it’s a great solution for a complete workshop in a small space.) I also have a sliding compound miter saw that is mounted to a workstand (that I built). I also have a special jig for my circular saw that guides it accurately when cutting sheet goods — just like a panel saw. So, with all of these tools, and a number of years of experience, I found it to be relatively easy, and I put it together in a couple of weekends. Here are some pictures,

Picture of the plans

Picture of the plans

Finished Workbench With Tools

Finished Workbench With Tools









and a link to the PDF set of plans:  TOM’S TORSION BOX WORKBENCH REV 1.0

Finally, it was time to move all of the tools from the pegboard and empty the drawers. I was able to find some nice plastic storage tubs which fit very nicely on my shelves in my new workbench, so I was actually able to keep the garage fairly well-organized. I tore out and broke down the cabinets, pulled out the old shelving and pegboard, and prepared to demo the drywall. My first cut showed that there was no ground wire coming out of the bottom of the electrical panel. Not good. So I kept tearing down drywall until I found what looked like the grounding wire. It was a #4 aluminum wire (bad) that obviously was headed upstairs to the plumbing system (bad again). I was hoping to find a ground to the rebar of the foundation (also called a Ufer ground), but no luck. So, I had to go back to the codes to figure out my options. Here is what I found:

#4 Aluminum ground wire won't be enough to handle a 200A circuit. Plus, it's grounded to the plumbing system which is no longer allowed. So, I need a new grounding system.

#4 Aluminum ground wire won’t be enough to handle a 200A circuit. Plus, it’s grounded to the plumbing system which is no longer allowed. So, I need a new grounding system.

An example of the crappy electrical installation in my home.

An example of the crappy electrical installation in my home.










More code violations! If I can, I'm going to replace every wire in this house! Especially because they're aluminum.

More code violations! If I can, I’m going to replace every wire in this house! Especially because they’re aluminum.








Turns out that I had already done a lot of research. I knew that there was a possibility of not finding a good grounding system and that I would have to install a new one, so I started looking into what that would take several months ago. A residential electrical system needs a good, low impedance connection to the earth for several reasons. (1) The earth ground will help protect your house and all of your electrical/electronic devices by dissipating high voltages that could occur due to a lightning strike or an electrical surge on the electric grid. (2) The earth ground serves as a zero voltage reference to help keep voltages constant at your appliances and receptacles, and serves to dissipate stray charges caused by static electricity build-up. (3) The ground allows a return path from your electric service panel to the electric utility’s supply transformer to correct imbalances in your electrical system. (WARNING — TECHNICAL STUFF AHEAD!)

Your electrical system connects to the electric utility through a “transformer” which is a relatively simple device that, through the magic of Maxwell’s equations, takes high voltage (typically 7,500V) from the electric transmission lines, and converts it to lower voltage (240V) suitable for residential use. This transformer splits this voltage into two legs using a center tap on the secondary windings of the transformer as a common return line. Hence your electric panel has two voltages available: 240v across the ends of the transformer, and 120v taken from one end of the transformer to the center tap. This center tap is called the “neutral” and, in theory, if all loads on both sides of the transformer are balanced, the neutral current is essentially zero. However, that’s rarely the case as the various circuits in your home draw from either one or the other side of the neutral (center tap) and some times they’re on and sometimes they’re not. So there is ALWAYS some current flowing through the neutral, and the grounding of the neutral to earth allows a return path for these “stray” currents to go back to opposite winding of the transformer via the ground on the transformer side.

Well at least I think I understand it.

Back to installing the ground. Because of the dry conditions, the best ground you can get in the southwest United States is a Ufer ground, or more appropriately called a “concrete encased electrode”. It turns out that the rebar in your slab and foundation makes a pretty good ground to the earth because concrete is conductive and the large surface area exposed to the earth provides a good, low impedance connection. But that didn’t do me any good because I’m not pouring a foundation. Another option is to use the water supply system provided that it is conductive. Even though the code allows it, this can be problematic because (a) somebody can always come in and install a non-conductive fitting (e.g., PVC) and (b) my water supply line is covered by a protective plastic sleeve to help prevent corrosion, which makes it useless as a ground. So the best option was for me to use grounding rods.

Grounding rods are 8′ copper encased steel rods that are driven into the ground. Normally they are driven straight in, but if you have rocks in the way, this can be problematic. So, if you run into rocks, you can drive the rods at a 45° angle, and if you STILL run into rocks, you can bury the rod horizontally at a 30″ depth. So, I decided to go with a rod grounding system that consists of two, 8′ rods driven at least 6′ apart (2x length, or 16′ is best) and connected with a continuous #4 solid copper wire. From the Internet I learned that the best way to drive these rods was to pony up the bucks to rent the largest hammer drill you could carry and rent a special rod driving bit to go with it. This YouTube video showed somebody driving the rod in about 40 seconds, but I really didn’t think I would be that lucky. Nevertheless, I procured the necessary materials and tools and merrily went to work.

The first attempt was about like I expected. Although I was hopeful at first, the rod stopped about half way in, so I had to do some digging and, through some  imaginative extrication work involving a pipe wrench and swearing, get the damn thing back out. At least I learned how to climb up a stepladder cradling a 40# electric jack hammer and lifting it up to gingerly rest on the top of the rod and then balancing the whole affair and hammering it in without falling off the ladder and breaking my neck. With that bit of confidence under my belt, I relocated the rod and tried again. Same result. So now, I knew I had rocks about 4′ deep and the next step was to drive at a 45° angle. I extracted the rod using the same methods mentioned previously, except for double the swear words, and relocated the rod and tried again. This time it went in farther, but still stopped. So I decided to dig the 30″ trench and just bend the end in to fit. However as I started to dig, I found out that the trench was running into existing buried electric, phone, and cable services. So I had to stop and, once again, extract this stupid rod.  It just looked like it was shaping up to be this kind of project with multiple problems and no real end in sight. Not that I’m inexperienced in this situation.

So, I did some more measurements and figured out where the rods should go so as not to interfere with existing services and maintain a minimum of 6′ spacing regardless of whether I had to bend the rods over or not. With low expectations, I tried to drive the rod for the 4th time and, by God, it went in. Like a hot knife through butter! Just like the video. So I was lucky, and being never one to turn down a lucky streak, I tried again with the second ground rod. It was going in pretty good until about the last 18″, and at that point I was loathe to give up the fight. So I put some serious ass into that jack hammer and the rod started to move slowly. I kept with it until my fillings were about ready to fall out, but hey, I got it all driven in. No need to trench or remove the rod and try again. I was all done!

Well at least the hard work was done. I had to unwind the copper wire, secure it to the rods with acorn nuts, and then put the wire in a little bit of PVC conduit so it would be protected from damage from where it exited the grade to where it went into the house. Here are some visuals:

Getting ready to drive my ground rods. I wanted to drive 3, but I ran out of wire because of where I had to locate the first 2 rods. Only 2 are required per code.

Getting ready to drive my ground rods. I wanted to drive 3, but I ran out of wire because of where I had to locate the first 2 rods. Only 2 are required per code.

Ground rod driven at 45º with proper ground wire installed.

Ground rod driven at 45º with proper ground wire installed.










Grounding Electrode Conductor (GEC) must be one continuous wire. (Splices must be either welded or use approved specialty connectors.)

Grounding Electrode Conductor (GEC) must be one continuous wire. (Splices must be either welded or use approved specialty connectors.)









Now with the ground in place, I’m all set to finish shoveling and leveling the final grade and get some gravel in to get ready for the concrete pour. The inspector came in yesterday and took a look and said I was good to go! Now, onto the backfill and concrete pour! Good thing that I checked all of this out ahead of time!

Energy Conservation and California Title 24

California is known for being, among other things, a “progressive” state. I won’t get into the nuances of exactly what that means other than to point out that California has some fairly stringent energy conservation laws and regulations. One of them is the Title 24 energy requirements, and the law focuses on the twin aspects of energy efficient design regulations, and compliance regulations. Energy efficiency is always a design objective for any home or remodeling project, not only to minimize the ongoing cost of utilities, but also because there is great concern about reducing our collective energy “footprint” due to the impact on climate and the environment. There is always a trade-off between the extra expense that has to be incurred up front to make a home energy efficient, and the expense one saves in utility bills which amortize this up front cost. Hey, if you spend so much making your home super efficient, but it takes 100 years to recover the expense, maybe that’s not such a bright idea.

In California, some of the guesswork about this has been regulated away. However, the way the state has done it is pretty cool (IMHO). Instead of prescribing how much insulation or what kind of roof you can put on your house, you design using a performance based approached. The state has a free computer program that will calculate the energy efficiency of your house, and you can make tradeoffs between energy efficient windows, reflective “cool roof” shingles, radiant barriers, insulation, etc.. to get within requirements. These requirements are specific to your geographic location and take into account the orientation of your house, the historical weather conditions, the length of daylight, elevation of the sun, and calculate your energy usage over an entire year in 15 minute increments (that’s  34,560 iterations). The reason I think this is cool is because I’m a geek at heart and this computer based modeling interests me. Fortunately, because I modeled my house, it was easy for me to get all of the measurements (surface areas). California also has a simulation for commercial buildings and, check this out, it uses a SketchUp plug-in called Open Studio, which is made by the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.

OK, enough of the geek stuff. The output of the program shows you how much energy you’ll be using, and it ALSO gives you an idea of what your heating and air conditioning requirements will be.  So, for me, I now can approach an HVAC contractor armed with some knowledge and make sure that they are sizing the units correctly.

As I mentioned above, another thing the program was useful for was to do some design tradeoffs. I had originally planned to replace all of my windows with vinyl high efficiency window. One thing that I noticed was that (a) these things are darned expensive to have installed (figure minimum $500 per window), and (b) it’s pretty difficult to get the right materials. Replacement windows are DIFFERENT from new construction windows, and while you can work your window opening to accept a new construction window, it’s difficult and expensive to do. None of the retail outlets sell replacement windows. I did some serious research and the only thing I came up with was to find some contractor who could buy the windows for you, and maybe you pay him a little bit and he puts your windows on an order he’s doing for somebody else. I swear, there must be some sort of conspiracy! So I had resigned myself to get a contractor to come in and do the stinkin’ windows. In the course of finalizing my plans, I had a professional inspector come in and give me the low down on the condition of my home because I didn’t want any big surprises (more on that later). He asked me about the windows, and when I told him I planned on replacing them, he strongly advised against it. Although I have single pane aluminum sliding windows, he said that all they needed was a good refurbishment, and that the energy savings were minuscule because of climate we live in. In addition, vinyl windows started to exhibit problems in as little as 5 years (in his experience). So, I went back to the energy simulation program, put back in my original windows, and darned if he was right. Hardly ANY change in energy efficiency. THAT saved me about $8000!

I won’t get into California Title 24 lighting requirements too much. I will only mention two things. (1) Incandescent lighting is an EXTREME wast of energy! An incandescent light should be re-named a light emitting electric heater, because that’s what it is. Go with high efficacy lights such as LEDs or Compact Flourescent (CFL). (2) California Title 24 requires that you have special fixtures that accept a specific light base (GU 24) for all permanent lighting (like all of those recessed ceiling lights I want to put in). This is because the regulators wanted to make sure that the owners wouldn’t just go out and buy typical screw-in lights when the “fancy ones” burned out. Unfortunately, the market for these special light bases and fixtures is limited (to new construction in California), so the industry has responded by making a whole BUNCH of high efficacy lights with the screw base (Edison). Now, I don’t have much of a choice in lights because of this response to the code by industry. It turns out that the new requirements for 2018 will allow screw in high-efficacy lights. BUT, I’m being permitted under 2010 requirements, so I’m stuck. My plan is to get a bunch of really cheap GU-24 CFLs to put into my lighting and have the inspector sign off, then when he’s gone, buy a bunch of GU-24 to Edison adapters and get the screw-in lights I really want.

So, to conclude, if you have a “geek streak” and are interested in learning about energy efficiency,you might want to consider one of the computer models that give you an accurate picture of what your energy improvements, and savings, might be. It makes it easy to compare energy upgrade costs versus utility savings, and it can give you some really good information when it comes time to discuss options with contractors. Since it’s a requirement in California, you’re either going to have to DIY, or pay somebody to do it. For me it was worth the effort to DIY, and I now have a good plan for making meaningful energy efficient improvements for my project.

Kitchen Design

Now that I had the house drawn up. It was time to start thinking about the re-design. A good place to start was the kitchen because it’s my favorite room in the house. I happen to be an avid amateur chef, and before I started this remodeling project, I was the food King. Meaning that I did all of the menu planning, all of the food shopping, and all of the cooking. And I’ll probably want to pick it back up afterwards because I’m going to have a great kitchen to work in! These culinary experiences and interests give me a particular viewpoint on how a kitchen should be designed. I had some concepts and constraints in mind when I approached the kitchen design. In addition to having a good physical and experience-based idea of what I wanted as a cook, I also wanted to have things easy to clean, easy to access, durable, attractive, and inexpensive. There were many features of my current kitchen which I really liked, and in the end, I kept the same basic design. Yes, I tweaked some things, and yes, I came to the conclusion that I would have to re-do the cabinets and the island, which gave me the opportunity to put my woodworking skills and tools to good use, and incorporate some additional features. Let’s face it. Every dedicated DIY fanatic ALWAYS is in search of the next “project”, so here was yet another opportunity. And in continuing my research, I found that the original design was actually a better design than I thought. One of the things that I noticed about most of the model homes we visited during our “Love It Or List It” period was the fact that most kitchen designs suck. I mean really. Most of them look great if you just want to hang out and eat, but cook? Refrigerators across the room from the ovens. Islands too far from the other countertops. Backsplashes made of expensive material that looks nice but will be a bitch to keep clean. Storage that’s clumsily arranged and hard to get to. No concept of workflow (storage to preparation to cooking to cleaning). And my pet peeve:  a microwave over the stove.  So I started with that, and then went down the list of things that I didn’t like, but keep the stuff I did.

  1. Get rid of the microwave over the stove. These things have almost zero fan power and don’t extend far enough over the stove top to trap the oils and particulate that are a part of your cooking.  So all of that junk gets embedded in the wood of your cabinets and the ceiling above. Impossible to clean. Plus, the heat from the stovetop kills the plastic and fries the electronics. And the house gets all stunk up when you’re creating yet another culinary masterpiece that you will decide is too hard to ever do again. (Why do I keep doing that?) Replace it with a good vent hood that is designed for the purpose.
  2. Resize the island to make it closer to the sink so I could easily step back and forth, and farther from the refrigerator so people could go in and out of the kitchen with the refrigerator door open. Relocate the microwave to the island. Having the microwave in the island is a universal design concept that allows easy access to somebody who can’t reach high, but is convenient for everyone.
  3. Make pullouts for all of the shelves in the base cabinets, island and pantry. Another universal design feature. As you age, it’s more difficult to get on your hands and knees and look in the way-back for this pot or that bag of flour. Come to think of it, it’s a Pain-In-The-Ass (PITA) at any age. (If I didn’t spell it out, you would have thought I was talking about some kind of bread.)
  4. Redesign the island countertop for 2 levels. One at 36” for standing work, and one at 30” for seated work. Another universal design feature.
  5. Make the inner carcass of the cabinets around the dishwasher and sink out of pressure treated plywood. The current particleboard is coming apart.
  6. Integrate beverage storage/liquor cabinet into the island design.
  7. Lower the “spice rack”. My current island has an area between the work surfaces and the “bar” where I keep all of my baking and cooking essentials (spices, flour, sugar, oils, seasonings, baking power etc.) When you’re in the midst of cooking, this arrangement is extremely helpful in streamlining your workflow because you’re not constantly going in and out of the pantry to get the next ingredient. The only downers are (a) the tops of the containers tend to accumulate detritus — hopefully solved with the vent hood, and (b) it was placed too high to conveniently see the football games being played in the den. The new design corrects this problem.
  8. Provide a place for all of my cookbooks so I would have to ferret around for them (too much, anyway).
  9. Have a pull out cart for the mixer (a king size kitchen aid) that also serves as a supplemental work surface. More universal design.
  10. Provide increased task lighting and general lighting (universal design).
  11. Make the backsplash out of white porcelain tile with a decorative glass inset. Looks nice, easy to keep clean, and inexpensive.
  12. Have a white quartz countertop on the upper top of the island. The purpose is to be have a place to roll out pastries and cookies without having to lug out a slab of marble (which isn’t big enough anyway).
  13. All other countertops will be white Formica with a decorative oak rub rail. I did this on the first remodel of this kitchen about 12 years ago, and it still looks pretty good. Yes, it needs a refresh, but these tops aren’t that hard to make and they aren’t very expensive either so occasional replacement is no big deal. I guess I’m not a big fan of these stone/granite/marble/glass composite/concrete countertops. I mostly don’t like the look because it’s distracting when you’re trying to cook because it’s not a clean background, they’re hard surfaces so stuff breaks on them when you drop something, and they’re so dang expensive. They seem to be pretty popular, but I wonder if any of the designers/builders/owners of these are actually serious cooks. One question: Have you ever seen granite countertops in a restaurant kitchen? I think I prove my point. AND, I have the best restaurant in town. If you’re lucky, I’ll have you over for one of my dinner parties!
  14. Laminate wood flooring. I know what you’re saying – this stuff has a funny sound and is not as warm and inviting as real wood (or engineered wood). Here’s the deal: It’s inexpensive, has good traction (universal design), durable, and EASY TO KEEP CLEAN. Did I mention that it was easy to keep clean? Hey a bucket of water, a greenie, and a squeegee and you’re good to go. No fancy waxes, dirt in the grout lines, peeling varnish or gouges (like linoleum). I installed it in my last kitchen remodel 12 years ago and the only defect is when my King size kitchen aid mixer fell off the counter while kneading an extra large bread dough recipe and made a divot. It has filled up with dirt over the years so I’m GTG.

Here is a rendering of what the kitchen will look like.









Here is a SketchUp model of the island. If you know about Dynamic Components, check out the microwave, the drawers and doors, and the cart pull-out.

You’ll have to download a free copy of SketchUp to see it. Why resist?

This program is extremely powerful. And fun I might add. It has probably 90% of what you get in the pro version, and if your aim is to model, or do some small scale projects, this might be the ticket. BUT… if you want to DIY like a pro, well, you need to consider the pro version. More on that later.

Know What You’ve Got — Modeling The Existing House

The first step in designing a remodel is getting an accurate drawing, or model in this case, of what you have. This will allow you to do some design tradeoffs and, if you have a nice modeling program, give you a glimpse of what it will look like. The other benefit from doing this up-front work is that you end up learning a lot about how the structure is built and this helps give you a good idea about how to go about doing the actual work. Since I am using the SketchUp Pro modeling tool, some of what I’m going to write about will be particular to that tool. However I’ll try my best to put things in more general terms so that the narrative will be useful to as many readers as possible.

There are a number of different ways that can help you translate your structure and land into a modeling program, but the approach you decide on depends on what your goals are. For instance, it is possible to take digital pictures of your house and read them into the modeling program, do some rudimentary modeling shapes, and you now have a house. However, you don’t necessarily have the insides. Plus, if you’re going after a nicely dimensioned layout, then you’ll have to take some time to be accurate. All of the books that I’ve listed in my reference pages under design and modeling have various methods, and I encourage you to give them a look. For my purposes, I figured that just doing actual measurements would work, and it did. I had to do a lot of them, and it took several weeks of my spare time to put the model together. It looked pretty nice when it was done, but, as I kept reading about how to use the program, I found a couple of authors who did things in a much more streamlined way. So read the books first if you want to save some time. The other thing I discovered is that the building department will sometimes have the original plans for your home. Hey, somebody had to get a building permit at one point! So it is WELL worth your time, and the administrative fees, to obtain a set of your plans. Had I known this, or even had thought about it, I would have saved a lot of time.  In addition, you will likely have to show a detailed foundation plan if you’re changing any structure, and the easiest way to do it is to copy the original plans (sure beats excavating and measuring). That being said, nothing substitutes for poking around your house and figuring out what’s what. 2D drawings really don’t give you the sense of how the thing is built that a thorough walk-around and poke-about does. You’ll also discover a few other things that need “fixin’!

Here are a few things I learned about computer modeling when I did this project:

  1. There is a “goldilocks” level of detail. Too little, and you don’t get a sense of what the project is about. Too much, and the model becomes bloated and difficult to work with. Start simple and add detail as you go. If you need extra detail, like showing framing and such, then consider having a separate model for just those details.
  2. Be accurate. Learn how the modeling program “snaps” to various points and edges. I learned that the hard way and I can’t tell you the amount of time I wasted correcting sloppy modeling.
  3. Learn how to organize your model. Michael Brightman’s book (see “Design and Modeling” under References) has an excellent method, and had I used that the first time, I would have saved at least a week of my time.
  4. Customize your modeling program for workflow, meaning setting up toolbars and keyboard shortcuts. Again, Michael Brightman has some excellent ideas that will help you model faster.
  5. Be patient. Regardless of how intuitive a given program is to learn, it will take you some time to develop the necessary skills. You will make some mistakes, and in some cases, it will be easier to start over. Don’t be discouraged. Take the time to study and go on line to go through the numerous tutorials and You Tube video “how to’s”.
  6. If it’s time for you to get a technical refresh on your computer, consider getting a system optimized for graphics. The SketchUp online community organized a special deal with a custom computer maker (JNCS) that provided an optimum system. Yes, it cost some money ($4K when you include a really nice graphics monitor, wireless keyboard, and mouse for computer graphics), but it sure speeded up the modeling and I didn’t have to put up with the crashes caused by an inadequate system choking on the model.
  7. Have fun! The time spent 3D modeling can be reward in itself. It is especially cool if you can see a finished product and move it around, look inside, and see how it mimics reality.

Here is a render of my finished “as built” model:Rev 1.0 Render #1



Detailed Design — Learning How To Draw

Well, it was time to roll up my sleeves and get to work. The first thing I needed to do was to make up a drawing of my existing house. On several of my previous projects, I used a set of rudimentary drafting tools and some skills I learned in my 8th grade shop class  to draw up some fairly nice plans. In my most recent project (a “catio” more on that later), I used Microsoft Visio to make up a set of electronic plans. That worked OK, but it really wasn’t a full-on CAD program, which is what I figured I needed if I was going to produce a set of building plans (the ultimate goal). So, I started shopping around for an architectural CAD program. Most of these programs are several thousand dollars (Chief Architect — $2695, AutoCad — $4195), and they seemed pretty difficult to learn how to use. I eventually went for a dumbed-down version of Chief Architect called Home Designer. That cost $495, and it promised to be easy to use and had a lot of nice automated features such as detailing of walls and quick rendering of interior and exterior views. So I ponied up and got the program. The term “easy to use” was relative, and I spent a lot of time learning how to use the program. I went about measuring the house and modeling it in this program. After several months of my spare time, I came up with a decent model, but I found out a couple of things: (1) I really couldn’t produce a set of working drawings with this program — it’s for “designers” who give their concepts to real architects who have these expensive CAD programs that produce “real” drawings, and (2) all of that great detailing automation meant that you couldn’t go in and customize things. You had to accept the default materials, dimensions, etc. Plus, the program was quirky and wouldn’t accurately model some of the idiosyncrasies of my house. So I was becoming increasingly frustrated as I saw that I was approaching what seemed to be a dead end.

One day, I was lamenting my woes to a colleague at work, and he mentioned another 3D modeling program called “Sketchup”. He said that he made several remodeling plans for his home with it, and he was very happy with the program. Best of all, it was free.  No kidding. It turns out that there is a free version, now called Sketchup Make, and there is a “pro” version which includes a separate program called Sketchup Layout, which is a full-on drafting program. The pro version sells for $590, which is about the same as I paid for the Home Designer loser program. So, I decided to at least try out the free version, and I discovered that it was not only intuitive, but that there was a HUGE online community that offered all kinds of help in learning how to use it. Plus, there was another group of professionals who were using the pro version to design real buildings and produce real plans. I was sold. So I swallowed my pride and bought the pro version and started afresh. That was a bitter pill because I had to start from scratch. The good news is that as I learned the program, I could customize the model and make it really accurate.

Although the program was intuitive and I picked it up pretty fast, there were a lot of nuances that I needed help with. I ended up reading a whole lot of books, which ultimately gave me a bit of mastery over the program. I have a complete list of my references under the references page in this blog. I think all of them are good, otherwise I wouldn’t recommend them,  but I would suggest starting with either the “sketchup for dummies” or one of  Bonnie Roske’s books. Also, follow the links on the Sketchup home page, check out the SketchuCation website,  or just Google search on Sketchup and you’ll find TONS of You Tube video “how to’s” and other resources. As I mentioned before, there is a tremendous online presence to help you out.

So after a lot of time, I ended up with a pretty good model of my home and some good drawings. I can say that I really came to enjoy the process, and now that I have the skill set, I feel confident that I could approach any aspect of architectural design and drawing. The building department was favorably impressed and was asking if I had any background in design. Well, I guess after 3 years of my spare time messing around with it, I could answer in the affirmative, even though my path was somewhat random at times.

I will post some of the results of my labors when I have the chance, and when I can figure out how to do it on this blog. That’s another skill set which I’m beginning to learn about.