sisu and south carolina

For those of you familiar with the Finnish or Finnish American community, you know about Sisu.  The dogged persistence that Finns are known for.  According to Wikipedia,

Sisu is…loosely translated into English as strength of will, determination, perseverance, and acting rationally in the face of adversity. However, the word is widely considered to lack a proper translation into any other language….The literal meaning is equivalent in English to “having guts”, and the word derives from sisus, which means something inner or interior. However sisu is defined by a long-term element in it; it is not momentary courage, but the ability to sustain an action against the odds.”

While most folks of Finnish background, including myself, feel proud of this trait, I’ve come to realize over the years how it can work against us: causing more work and suffering than needed.  Yet I guess that’s part of Sisu – if we don’t suffer and work hard it somehow means the end result wasn’t worth it.  Those who know me well know that it’s hard for me to back down once I’ve set my mind on something or once I’ve been challenged.  It’s difficult for me to just move on in a different direction once I’ve realized I’ve made a wrong decision, even when changing my course of action or abandoning a project would make my life so much easier.  If I haven’t given something (a job, a place, a relationship, a creative endeavor) every last chance or 100% of my effort how can I walk away from it?  But sometimes the smartest decision is to walk away.  So, how does this Sisu quality relate to my tiny house?

Well, after I found out about the ‘lil house in Charleston (see previous post), I just really wanted to make it work.  It seemed like such a good deal, and I’d had many conversations with Mike, the original builder, and felt good about carrying his dream project to fruition.  Tony and I spent a month researching the trailer and tracking down an MSO (Manufacturer’s Statement of Origin) to get it registered.  The trip down there was a journey in and of itself, and Tony and Zach put in a lot of work to make sure the house got up to DC safely.  But, at the end of the day, I should have probably asked myself “is this worth it?”  All this time and energy for something I thought was a good deal wasn’t exactly what I wanted in the end.  The original owner had built the frame without utilizing the entire trailer space (a foot extra on either end, losing two feet of potential interior space). I wanted dormers and a porch.  I would have done the roof pitch differently than he did.

We thought it would be relatively easy to incorporate some of my design ideas by removing the roof and extending the walls, so Tony took off the roof last week.  He was about to move the walls this week when we realized that the walls have racked (they are not totally plumb anymore).  This racking may have happened during the move, but it may also have occurred during the extreme storm we had here at the end of June that brought 80 mph winds.  This, unfortunately, means more of Tony’s time spent getting the walls plumb again, and, in many ways, it would be easier just to start from scratch. A complete build from the ground up was why Tony was excited about this project in the first place – to get out of the remodel work he was doing out West which was frustrating, to have control over a whole project from start to finish.  But, here he is remodeling a tiny house and again starting from someone else’s design, decisions, and mistakes.

While it wasn’t a bad deal, it’s not going to save me money in the long run and it ate up a lot of our time and energy over the last couple of months.  So maybe sometimes this dogged persistence to an idea or a goal is just plain dumb.  My favorite translation of Sisu is this one I’ve seen on a tshirt:

“Sometimes the line between sisu and stubborn however is very vague. One form of sisu could be a person walking 25 km home during winter just because he decided to do so.  Of course that person would be drunk, but that’s sisu…or stubborn stupidity.”

I have hope that I did the right thing by carrying on someone else’s project, and I’m sure it will all turn out beautifully in the end.  Still, there are days that I wonder if it just wasn’t my stubborn stupidity that led us to South Carolina.

workshop weekend in dc

This past weekend was a weekend of tiny house workshops.  Brian and Lee started off a very hot Saturday morning with a workshop we offered through Knowledge Commons DC.  We had fewer participants than expected given the heat and the power that was out all over the city from Friday night’s storms (power is still out across much of the city, including the lot, three days later).

Next, we presented to over 60 tiny house enthusiasts at Tumbleweed’s workshop at the District Architecture Center – the same workshop that Lee attended a year ago when all of this tiny house plotting began!  We had a fun and inspiring weekend hanging out with Deek from Relax Shacks and Bridget from Tumbleweed Tiny House Company and meeting other tiny house enthusiasts in the area.

We received great feedback from everyone at the workshops, but the best thing about presenting on our projects is that we realize how many other people want to do this as well.  This is not just a community of people on the fringes of mainstream society but one of government workers, grandparents, students, teachers, artists – all of them looking restructure and downsize their lives to make time for what’s important to them.  It was inspiring to hear everyone else’s creative ideas for their projects and lives.

KCDC workshop on the boneyard lot

Lee showing her tiny house shell to class participants

In front of the Tumbleweed Fencl with some of the workshop participantsLee, Brian and Tony presenting at the Tumbleweed workshop

arrival of lee’s tiny house

Tony went down to South Carolina this past weekend to pick up the tiny house shell that he will finish building for Lee.  Check out the video of the arrival of the house in DC.  Thanks to Zach from the Charleston Tiny House project…he helped Tony get the house, put new tires on the trailer, and was his co-pilot back up to DC.  It was great to have someone who’s already towed a tiny house along for the adventure.

lot update (early june): fencing, electricity, compost, fruit trees!

Some pictures from the lot taken over the past couple weeks – Brian and Tony are almost done with the fencing, compost was delivered, garden beds are being built, and some of the fruit trees are planted already!  Plus, Brian installed his birdfeeder and hammock hooks are going up soon.  Lee returned from Brazil excited to see all the progress made on the lot.  Tony is off to South Carolina next weekend to pick up her tiny house shell and trailer.  Brian and Jay’s trailers are parked and waiting to be built.

View from the South with garden beds and a bit of the hogwire fencing to be put in on graveyard side of lot

View from the North side of the lot

Brian picked up a bunch of sixteen foot sections of hog wire fencing from a farm supply store near Baltimore- this will be used to finish up the fence. We got it to fit in the 17′ Uhaul, barely.

We thought we could save time digging fence post holes with a gas powered augur. Within 10 minutes of fruitless battle with rock and concrete, we realized that each of the 44 holes for the fence would need to be dug the old fashioned way.

Tony and Brian designed a removable fence – post system in order to be able to take off fence panels when moving the houses on wheels into or out of the lot.

A 4 foot deep hole was dug to put the electrical pole into, per DC code and Tony and Brian installed a 20′, 6×6 electrical pole — tough lifting!

16 yards of compost arrives to fill garden beds

Fruit trees and garden beds ready to be filled and planted

lot update (late may): 44 fence posts in, trailer delivery

I left for Brazil just as everything started happening on the lot.  I promised I wouldn’t disappear for a month but try and stay engaged in the project while here.  Thus, I write this from a hammock in rural Northeast Brazil where we’re staying with an amazing community leader and learning about the Xukuru’s fight to regain their territory here in Brazil.  While feeling grateful for the opportunity to be here, I’m also sad that I’m missing out on all the work that is being done on the lot.  Fortunately, Tony and Brian have been keeping me updated via photos, email and Skype.

Here’s a recent update I received from Tony about the past week:

What a week!  We took delivery of the shipping container on Monday, we’ve set most of the fence posts and Brian and Jay picked up their trailers on Friday.  We should have the fencing up by the end of next week and, hopefully, we’ll have your house on the lot in about a week.  You’re not gonna recognize the place when you get back! 
It took some doing to get the trailers on the lot, but everything went well and we learned a lot about the logistics of moving and siting them.  Once they are built up, it’s going to be even trickier to move them around.  There’s not enough room in the alley to back them all the way into place with a truck.  We ended up situating them by hand.  We’re going to look into getting some type of hand dolly for future use.  And I wouldn’t be surprised if we end up renting a small tractor to move them on and off the lot.  One nice thing about the lot is that the yard slopes down perfectly to meet the back of the trailer.  You’ll probably be able to step out of your back door directly onto the grass without stairs.    

Brian and I have spoken to a lot of people passing through the alley and the feedback we’re getting is very positive.  People are excited about the garden beds and curious about tiny houses. I know you feel like you’re missing out, but a lot of what we’ve been doing is dirty, sweaty grunt work.  The good news is that we should be ready for the fun part of designing and building out the interior of yours when you get back.       

Check out the photos below – they’ve really made progress, and I’m excited to get back and start working on this project again!

View of new fenceposts, shipping container and two flatbed trailers on site

Fence posts on the lot with view of future garden bed area in foreground

Brian and Jay’s trailers parked on lot

Hanging out in Fencl loft

tony the tiny house builder in DC: week in review

I’ve been lagging on blog posts because the build hasn’t felt real yet.  I am hiring Tony – a friend from my Oregon days – to build mine for me, and he just arrived in DC this week.  So now, all of a sudden, it feels quite real and very exciting!

We’ve been doing preparatory work this week meeting with other tiny house builders, scoping out materials and prices, looking at designs we like, and helping Brian out on the lot and garden beds.  Making decisions usually stresses me out, and all the decisions that go into a tiny house have been overwhelming me, so it felt good to already decide on a couple things while looking at materials.  For instance, I love the look of the interior of the Protohaus and have decided to go with bead board rather than the knotty pine that the Fencl plans call for (saving a significant amount of money as well).  I have also decided I really like the look of cork flooring and many of its benefits and will most likely go with that for my flooring – whew…two decisions made effortlessly!

Bead board in the Protohaus

Knotty pine interior of Fencl

The biggest news this week is that I may end up downsizing even more.  Originally I planned on building on a 22 ft-long x 8 ft-wide trailer, extending the Fencl out by 4 feet in length and one foot in width.  But this week we were out for beers with our new tiny house friends Margaret and Zach – who are building an amazing tiny house in South Carolina – and Zach told us about an ad he had seen for a tiny house shell.  It’s a fabulous deal, but the main issue I had with it is that, while built on an 18-ft trailer, the shell is just 16 feet long and 7 feet 10 inches wide.  Could I really lose 6 feet of interior space?  That’s a lot of room in a tiny house.   Still, the price is less than what my trailer itself will cost, and the seller was excited that we even knew about tiny houses.  Tony talked with the builder/seller and he seems to have done solid work, and Zach checked it out in person for us.  It looks like I’ll be buying the shell all built out!  We will finish the roofing, siding and interior starting in June.

Next, Tony and I went to spend some time hanging out in the Fencl (18 ft long x 7 ft wide).  After spending about an hour, moving about in the rooms, hanging out in the loft, scoping out storage, I think I can make a smaller unit work.  It will require getting creative about storing my stuff (or getting rid of more), but I’m excited about the challenge.   I like to think I adapt easily to wherever I live and the size will be fine, but if it’s too small I can design and build a larger one over time.  It will be useful to spend some time in one first to get an idea for what I really want and need in size and design.  I’ll post more photos of the shell soon.

Lee in Fencl loft

Tony checking out the windows

sign up to help us out!

We will be hosting community work days here at the Boneyard Studios Lot.  We will host a work day to help with preparation of the lot – to include setting up the gardens, putting in fencing, pulling up some dirt and concrete.  We will be hosting community build days and would love to find folks with specific skills to help out with various phases of the build process.  For those with no construction experience, we will also be hosting a community learning day during part of the build where you can come and observe and learn about building a tiny house on wheels.  Please fill in the form below if you are interested in any of these community days.

tiny house cake!

My birthday was yesterday, and my lovely and creative coworkers presented me with this cake today.  I’m afraid this may mean that I’m now officially a tiny house geek.  The cake definitely takes it up a notch.

Lee's Tiny House Cake!

Two Tiny Houses!

too many bikes for one tiny house

I love bikes. For twenty years of my life the bicycle has been one of my primary forms of transportation: in the Marshall Islands where there were no personal vehicles, in Seattle through many rainy commutes, in Minnesota winters while a car-less college student, in Bogota, Colombia with its ciclovia, and in DC with an ever-growing creative bike community.

But I also love the idea of living in a tiny house with minimal belongings, and I can really only allocate space for one bike in my tiny house.  As any cyclist knows, how can you get by with just one bike?  Each of my bikes serves a very different purpose and I usually have between 3 and 5 in my possession at one time.  For instance,

  • An Xtracycle for camping, grocery trips and giving friends rides home from a bar.
  • A road bike for recreational weekend road rides with friends and training rides.
  • A stylish urban commuter bike on which I bomb around the city’s potholed streets.
  • An old one-speed cruiser that I use when I don’t want to worry about one of my nicer bikes getting stolen, when I’m wearing a skirt or when I just want that more upright, leisurely riding style that helps me slow down and appreciate my surroundings.

Road bike in Virginia

Xtracycle with groceries and Christmas tree

Custom painted urban commuter

Cruiser bike

There is hardly room for one bike in my tiny house let alone the four I currently have.  So, how to choose from my current bikes?  Easy: don’t decide…buy a new one!

And, of course, get rid of all the others.  I looked for a  bike that could meet the majority of my requirements and, after many months of research, I came across a bicycle company in my home state of Minnesota called Handsome Cycles.  Enter into the equation the Handsome Devil: a beautiful, clean steel frame that is very versatile and  good-looking.  Not only was it everything I was looking for, it came in my favorite color – green!  I was sold.  So, I now have five bikes that are about to be transformed into one.

Storage of bikes in the tiny house community

Part of the beauty of living in DC is the ability to live car-free, and we definitely want to provide some bike storage on the alley lot.  While we are considering storing some bikes in a shipping container (Brian too has 3 bikes and no plans to downsize his fleet), we’ve also been exploring ways to store bikes attractively in or just outside the tiny house.  I would like some setup that allows my bike to be secure and free from the elements but not have it in the middle of my tiny living room.

Here are some interesting ideas I’ve come across (click on images to link to original images and websites).

Bike Shelf from Mission Bicycle Co.

The Bike Shelf (by Mission Bicycles) – Beautiful, elegant, but requires more wall space than I might have.  Also, I don’t think I want to spend the same amount of money on the shelf that I hang my bike on ($299!) that my bike itself cost (well, the frame and fork cost just over $300).  For those with the extra money, though, I think it’s the most aesthetically-pleasing option I have found.

Image from Apartment Therapy

Hooks – use a $3 utility hook from the hardware store   – I think this would work best out on a tiny house design with the covered porch (which I will not have).  But, I might experiment with hanging the bike from the ceiling using hooks like the example at left.

Pulley system – an option to elevate your bicycle in the tiny house, but I really don’t like the way it looks with all the hardware.

The Seattle Times

Another option for ceiling storage:  I like the design at left in a small studio apartment in Seattle.

Outside option – we are investigating how to hang the bike on the outside of the house incorporating a way to fold up a locking door or hatch to enclose it.

What other ideas do you have for storing bikes that might work well in a tiny house?

typology of tiny house enthusiasts

In her article titled “I Can’t Stop Looking at Photos of Absurdly Tiny Homes” on the Atlantic Cities blog yesterday, Emily Badger questions why we tiny house enthusiasts are so obsessed.

“There is something oddly alluring about smartly designed but freakishly small spaces. I know this because enough other people must be into these things to warrant the steady stream of them flowing from my Twitter feed. I also know this because I have never met a link promising a teeny tiny home that I was not compelled to click on.”

She interviews Mimi Zieger about the obsession around tiny houses and ends up constructing a typology of tiny house enthusiasts with her.  I’m not sure if they hit on all the categories, but they certainly covered the majority.  Below is a summary:

Walden types – those who are driven by reducing their environmental footprint and simple living.

Do-It-Yourselfers (DIYers) – those who are driven by the challenge of building something themselves.

Design types – those who are motivated by the cuteness of the tiny house.  Emily, the author, doesn’t feel like the cuteness category fully encompasses her obsession, so she asks Mimi “what about those people who like puzzles?”  Those inspired by the design challenge of building a small space?

“There’s just something elegant about squeezing so much utility out of something so small. Every component must be thoughtful and integrated. And a puzzler can appreciate the clever solution of turning a bookshelf into a dining table, even if you don’t want to eat on one in yourself.”

I think she’s on to something here.  A lot of my interest in the tiny house movement comes from the innovation and creativity I see in every project: simple designs I find for storing kitchenware, a cool fold-down deck, or a drawer bed that slides out from under the floor.  Like the author and unlike a Walden type, I am not as much motivated in ridding myself of belongings (in fact I fully expect to have a small storage unit for my outdoor gear and off-season clothes) as I am in finding a way to reduce to the essentials and challenge myself to find innovative ways to live within those boundaries of a small space with limited items.

Tiny Homeless Shelters (

However, I think one huge category that was not highlighted in this article are those who are motivated by the economics of tiny house living.  There is a reason the tiny house movement has taken off in the last few years.  With the uncertainty in the job market and foreclosures across the nation, people, both young and old, are looking for creative ways to live that don’t require a 30-year mortgage eating up half or more of their annual salary.  Young women are building these (according to Jay Schafer of Tumbleweed Tiny Homes young women may currently be the largest growing demographic of tiny home builders, see this example), adults taking care of elderly parents are building them (Son Builds Tiny House for his Mother), and students are building them as a way to save money while creating a separate space from their parents (see this 16-year-old’s tiny house).

In an October 2011 interview on Crosscurrents from KALW with several tiny house builders Stephen Marshall, owner of the company Little House on a Trailer, mentions what he sees in his tiny house business: those who are motivated by environmental concerns may stop and look at his houses, but it is those motivated by economic concerns who actually buy them (listen to or read the whole news story).  And this is the difference between those who are simply obsessed with looking at tiny houses online versus those who are actually building tiny houses.  When you read the blogs of tiny house builders you will almost always find them explaining their economic incentives for building tiny in addition to the fun and creative challenges of reducing their belongings and becoming more environmentally-conscious.


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