Studio Shed build starts

In January I started working with the great folks at Studio Shed to design and deliver a structure for Boneyard Studios. As described in a previous post, it will be a common space- part workshop space, part bike storage, part trailer park bingo hall.  Delivery of the shed came on Tuesday, and after a too-windy Wednesday we started construction Thursday and Friday morning on the lot.

So far its been:

1 hour to remove the shipping container

1 day to prep and pour the concrete

3 days to let concrete dry

3 hours to unload the Studio Shed materials (unfortunately, in driving snow)

1 full day and 3 hours the following morning to complete the 12×24’ Studio Shed shell (walls+windows+roofing)

So far we’ve been impressed with how easily the Studio Shed goes together, and how open it feels inside.  In the coming week(s) we’ll work on adding the galvanized roofing, siding, installing the doors and trim, and completing the interior.  A huge thanks to Tony, who is super talented and great to work with on site, and the folks at Studio Shed (Laura O’Connor, Mike Koenig, Jason Plumb and others) who have been so remarkably helpful during design and construction.

Rainwater collection for micro houses

Minim water system installed under benchPreviously I explored improvements to standard micro house water systems for water systems where there is no permanent pressurized water hookup or sewage line.   In many cases there may be no source of water but from the heavens.  So in this post I’d like to share a year of experience designing (and redesigning) rainwater collection and treatment systems- the water that feeds some of the micro houses at Boneyard Studios. The good news here is that in most climates it is entirely realistic to collect, treat, and use as much potable water as you will need for happy micro house living. (1)

Off-grid water collection systems typically consist of the following elements:

a) Rain catchment surface. Typically this is the micro house roof, but could equally be a different structure. While rainwater will be filtered, ideally a rainwater will not flow over petrochemical products that leach contaminants into the water- metal is perhaps the best choice.  Also be sure to avoid wood shingles, metal flashing or roof treatments that contain lead.  Calculate the amount of water the roof may harvest by getting your local monthly rainfall, and using the following formula:

Harvested water= catchment area (ft2) x rainfall depth (inches) x .623

For example, for a 11×22 micro house in Washington DC (avg 3” rain/month), collection could be up to approximately 500 gallons for an average month.

b) Rainwater transport. When rain falls on the roof, it should flow through gutters and piping that allow a high waterflow to the collection tank- I recommend at least 3-4” pipes for a 250 ft2 roof.  As we know when it rains it often really pours, but if the pipe system can’t handle the times the rain really lets loose, you’ll be losing a high % of your monthly water collection to spillage.  Also, ideally water should simply gravity fall through pipes directly into your cistern (collection tank), without the need for pumping, switches, or active maintenance- having tried an automatic rain-activated pumping system, I’ve found it is far simpler to have a direct gravity ‘roof-to-tank’ system.  Early settlers who built rain collection systems heartily agreed.

c) Collection tank/cistern. The tank is where the bulk of the rainwater is stored. In cold climates it must be insulated or placed underground to prevent water from freezing. In slightly more temperate climates, a bit of electric heat tape under the tank and around the pipes can keep enough water flowing during the coldest months.  Sizing should be based on both rainfall patterns and expected water use.  Just as for electricity, it is best to first minimize water use (rather than invest in larger collection/storage systems) through low flow faucets, shower heads, and foot pedal faucets.  Just as a rule of thumb, with efficient fixtures I estimate 30 gal/week/person with regular washing, showers, etc.  When the collection tank is full, there should be a basic overflow mechanism that gutters the water far away from the house/tires. Tanks can be rigid plastic or flexible- the key design trait being a large enough inlet to accept high water flow.  I personally favor the flexible water pillow tanks (far cheaper to ship than the large rigid tanks, easy to unroll and hide under a trailer). (2)

d) Water pumping.  From the collection tank water is then pressurized to move through a potable water hose to the garden, or through the same hose to an onboard holding tank and water filter.  A simple 12 or 120 volt Shurflo pump and switch will do the trick (I hide mine in the trailer hitch compartment, and make sure the pump is disconnected during freezing weather to avoid cracking- it could also live inside).  For potable water, water could be pumped directly from the collection tank through an on-board filter if freezing is never an issue.  I prefer an on-board RV water tank within the micro house that stays warm, then pump/filter from this tank with a secondary water pump. (3)

e) Water filtration. For potable shower and sink water, a quality water filter is essential. The filter takes water from the collection tank/cistern or on-board tank and makes it drinkable. There are many kinds available. The requirements here are water efficiency (no reverse-osmosis), energy efficiency (no UV filters that require electric UV lights on 24/7), maintenance simplicity, filtration efficacy (on bacteria/virus/chemicals), and cost.  After extensive research the ceramic Doulton RIF-10 with the additional sediment pre-filter was the tool of choice- I’ve used for over a year, with infrequent cleanings, and excellent water quality.  This model is originally designed for freshwater boaters, so taking water from your cistern ‘rainwater lake’ also works well. The ceramic filter has been proven for hundreds of years across the former British Empire, and is easily cleaned up to 50x with a scouring pad.  Note the filter is plumbed in after the second (on-board) water pump, so water is pushed through it. Once filtered, water flows to the plumbed micro house water system, very simple.(4)

So to recap a now thoroughly tested/proven off grid water collection and treatment system, version 3.0:

rooftop –> large gutters/pipes –> 250 gallon flexible cistern –> water pump #1 –> potable water hose –> garden or 40 gal onboard tank –> water pump #2 –> RIF-10 filter –> sinks/shower

(1) For foundation built houses, be sure to check local codes on rainwater harvesting for potable use.

(2) Note that rainwater collection experts will argue a pre-filter on the collection tank is necessary to filter out pollen, dust, etc from roof water. This is clearly ideal.  Though to me this seems more necessary when using under ground storage- above ground storage tanks can be more easily emptied of any sediments as needed.  I simply use a basic leaf screen in line in the gutter.

(3) Note that when filling an on-board sealed water tank, air must be exhausted as water rises. While there are a number of simple RV air release products, I settled on this Hayward air release valve plumbed at the top of the water tank. It has the benefit of releasing air, but sealing automatically to prevent water overflow when the tank is full.

(4) Note RV’ers may find it unpalatable to store ‘unfiltered’ water in an on board storage tank, but even potable water RV water tanks have to be sanitized regularly. I find it preferable to actively filter water at the time of use, though this does mean that water flow rates are a bit less than pumping directly from a clean water tank- the water filter slows the water flow rate down a bit (more if dirty).  For this reason I advise not attempting to use on-demand (‘tankless’) water heaters if actively filtering water (have tried and failed).  These water heaters just demand too high a water flow rate to remain activated.

(c) 2014 Brian Levy

take action: final comments on DC zoning changes

DC’s zoning has not been comprehensively updated since 1958. After 6 years of drafting and public input, the Office of Planning is about to finalize a new set of zoning regulations that could transform the city by allowing accessory dwelling units (ADU’s- carriage houses and microhomes behind an existing house, or basement apartments), as well as development of residential structures on alley lots.  If done correctly, this would be a huge boon for affordable housing in DC, and allow smaller housing units across town.

BUT! While the current draft is ok, it could be even better. There are conservative forces that would love to do away with any new affordable accessory dwelling units in the city, and the current rules are rather restrictive. So DC Residents, we need your help, this week! Once these final comments are in, the Zoning Commission will vote on the final package.  Please help by:

A: Signing the Petition from the Coalition for Smarter Growth.
They have been on the forefront of advocating for progressive change.

B: Submitting written testimony to advocate for specific changes we need. Here is an easy testimony template with specific language changes we need (note these are my (Brian’s) views on ADU’s and alley lots).  Zoning Commission will only accept emailed comments in PDF format, which must include your signature. Email signed PDF to: zcsubmissions@dc.gov .  Subject line of email must include the case number (08-06A) and the subtitle or subtitles that your testimony refers to (Subtitle D).

C: Testify at the Wards 1-8 public meetings around town this coming week. It’s easy, and the Coalition folks can support you.

Thanks- zoning is the DNA of a city, and it’s a rare moment when we can act to positively affect the character of our city for years to come! With thousands of us connected through Boneyard Studios, we can really make a difference.

Showdown: $55K DC micro house vs $525K 1 bedroom DC apartment

It occurred to me as I’ve toured a number of 1 bedroom apartments around DC just how little additional functionality one gets for 4x the space (and 10x the price) of a decent micro house in this town.  Just for fun, I developed a matrix comparing the $55K, 210 ft2 Minim House to a fairly hum drum $525K, 923 ft2 Georgetown 1BR apartment.*  Just to check that I wasn’t cherry picking an exceptionally poor design, I also looked at similar floor plans in brand new ‘professionally designed and built’ apartments for rent at AvalonAvaGables, and Equity, all of which have 750-800ft2 one bedrooms (for $1700-3300/month), with roughly comparable floor plans.

I will let readers be the judge of the relative tradeoffs of both living spaces. In this case, functionally, it seems an additional 713ft2 (and $470K) buys two more oven burners, a dishwasher, a bathtub, and bit more closet space.  One might think professionally trained architects and builders could do a bit better with quadruple the space of a micro house.

Minim vs 1br apt

*the obvious caveats here are that the micro house price does not include land value or any building amenities, and that much of housing prices is reflected by location. This post is a basic comparison of functionality of a 210 ft2 space vs a 923 ft2 space.

Studio Shed coming to Boneyard Studios

garage-5B

The newest structure planned at the Boneyard Studios lot will be a 12′x24′ Studio Shed, coming in Spring 2013.

Conceptually, it made sense to have a larger common gathering area for folks at Boneyard Studios, and hopefully the wider neighborhood of which we are a part.  So the Studio Shed is planned to serve as a beautiful community and workshop space, with a bit of bike storage on the side.  It will replace the 8′x20′ shipping container, which has never been too much to look at, is quite narrow, and has no windows or insulation.  Unlike the micro houses on wheels currently here, the Studio Shed will be foundation built.

The Studio Shed will also be an important part of the Boneyard Studios showcase.  We think this company makes some of the most attractive storage and garage structures around, and they also have a finished ‘lifestyle‘ line that are perfect for foundation-built micro homes, backyard accessory dwelling units, art studios, guest rooms, etc.  The company also shares our values about re-envisioning what our space needs are.  So we’re very excited to be able to have one of these unique pre-fabricated buildings alongside the three tiny homes as another type of small, affordable, green, and quick-to-construct housing option.  Stay tuned for the foundation pour and wall raising- they come pre-built so with the foundation in the finished structure should be up in a week or two!

The shed will look very similar to the one above.

 

the joy of limits (pt.1: grounded)

‘our human and earthly limits, properly understood, are not confinements but rather inducements to formal elaboration and elegance, to fullness of relationship and meaning’  Wendell Berry

Limits are a curious thing. We commonly sense there is a clear line of trespass for a range of goods: food intake, staring at the TV, resource extraction, suburban growth, car speed.  Then there fortunately exist things where generally no constraint is needed: creation of art, appreciation of nature, love, among others.  Yet a third category of things lives in the shadows- those things we often don’t think to limit (often in the name of personal freedom and liberty), but might be better off individually and collectively were some boundaries observed: plane travel, ambition and wealth, our number of offspring, time texting on the iPhone. And yes, perhaps even the size of our homes.  Here I wish to consider this last category, as there may be some unexpected riches laying unobserved in embracing constraint, some added creativity unleashed by a box we willingly place ourselves in.

Certainly many in the micro house movement sense a joy in inhabiting a limited space- a simplicity of existence, the elegant economy of form of a well designed small structure, an added freedom once unshackled from unneeded rooms and unwelcome mortgages. Could this joy found in limited space be a footnote to a larger realm?  It seems a relevant question for this site. To start, I would consider the benefits to limitations on movement, of geographic constraint.

At Carleton College every fall, students living on campus with cars were once required to sign them into ‘dead storage’, a muddy dark parking lot back in the woods. To drive cars during the school year required special permission from college security.  While some suddenly discovered new religions to allow off campus car use to attend ‘services’, most stayed put in this rural Minnesota college town, staying together after class on evenings and weekends. There was drinking, but also a blossoming of creative activity on campus as students found ways to entertain.  At the time, an unpopular policy, and seemingly un-American. Yet years later, few question the fact that this limitation was crucial in forging the surest of bonds among us, and to a small patch of campus in the middle of a cornfield.

There are other periods many of us have been willingly confined in time and place: summer camp, graduate school, long cabin weekends– all of which often lead to a harvest of meaningful memories.  Contained geographically, many find there is a certain freedom that only comes from stability, a blossoming of creativity and friendships, a deepened understanding of the place inhabited.  Xavier de Maistre, sentenced to house arrest after a duel, famously wrote a travelogue titled ‘Journey Around My Bedroom’ that explored the richness of every object and memory in his chamber.  For de Maistre, as for Proust, “the voyage of discovery lay not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes’.  For most, such constraint can be torturous if conditions are forced or unwelcome.  Yet when not, geographic boxes frequently come to be experienced far more as a comfort than as a cell.  And when the box fades, the potential to be able to go anywhere, anytime may become momentarily vertiginous.

Apart from deepened understanding and relationship, geographic constraints may promote efficiency of use, as it often does in tiny dwellings.  Urban garden plots are an apt example.  With DC’s urban gardens oversubscribed, most gardeners make do for years with single 10’x6’ plots. Initially frustrated by the limited area, necessity becomes the mother, and some gardeners come to value every inch, happen upon a long list of more intensive and efficient gardening techniques. These plots easily outproduce plots 2-3x that are less well attended.  In comparison to rural gardeners and farmers, some of these urban gardens are the highest yielding plots around.  For those that start with great amounts of land, like unused extra rooms in suburban mcmansions, a wealth of options leads to inefficiency of use.

There are perhaps more subtle lessons as well from the garden. As I planted, I found it tempting to constantly uproot and rearrange plants to gain just a few more inches of growing space.  But transplanting plants over and over was never good for their health. It was far better to plan carefully, plant deliberately, and keep them put. Certainly for the garden to stay healthy, we gardeners needed to stay in place, steadily, to water and weed. There was no app for that.

We humans are not so much like the vegetable. But after a career in international development, I found the continual movement across time zones presented a challenge to social life, good brain functioning, and a sense of place. There were many good people in this professional world, but it seemed few of us ever were ’grounded’ except on a plane.  I became envious of my tomatoes, which got to stay rooted in one place all season.  It seemed plausible that after generations of tribal living, humans might not be terribly well adapted to constant movement among places and cultures, and perhaps prone to jet set melancholia.  It may not be the case that just staying put directly leads to psychological well being, but constant movement impacts other conditions- a sense of community and personal connections, that certainly do.

So as many of us build and use our tiny houses on wheels, most of the time these wheels do not turn, and perhaps for the better.

(c) 2013 Brian Levy

minim house wins AIA award

Last week the DC Chapter of the AIA (American Institute of Architects) announced that Minim House was among the final winners of their 2013 Merit Award. Big kudos to Will Couch and Matthew Compton at Foundry Architects, who helped design Minim, as well as all amazing folks who contributed on completing this micro house (see photo below).

We’re not sure, but we think this may be one of the few (only?) trailers to ever win an AIA award, and was certainly the lowest cost project on this years AIA-DC awards roster.  Full information about Minim House is available at the Minim Homes website.

Thanks to all the invaluable contributors to the Minim House project!

Thanks to all the invaluable contributors to the Minim House project!

minim house complete

Minim house (aka my trailer in the alley) is complete.  A little longer than expected, but I believe we have a finished product that is more refined than planned, flawlessly executed, and ready for the next 50 years.  And perhaps a project that contributes to the dialogue on the potential of sustainable, small spaces.

Planning and building this micro house has been one of the most passionately engaging and satisfying experiences I’ve had, and it is largely due to the excellent folks I’ve had working by my side.  A sincere thanks to Will Couch at Foundry Architects, David Bamford at Element Design+Build, Tony Gilchriest, and all the many additional contributors to the project that I’ve attempted to list on the project plaque (see below).  And to Paul Burk for the 6 hour photo shoot.

As for the experience of being in this 210 square foot house, while I can’t officially live here, I did design it to allow for that someday, and have spent many hours in the space. I have tried moving everything in to see how it fits for the photo shoot.  In short, it’s quite perfect.  There’s room for 175 books, a full sized keyboard and guitar, bar, KitchenAid stand mixer & attachments, a 10 tray food dehydrator, bread machine, 75+ mason jars, sewing machine, suitcase, printer/copier, bags of tools, etc.  There’s even room left over for a combo washer/dryer in the closet (the one thing I’ve felt might be missing).  Most important to me, this all fits without feeling at all cramped or cluttered, and with room for 10 guests to sit comfortably.

More pictures and background on this micro house at the Minim House website.

fruit, flowers, herbs & veges

2013 is the first real season for the garden, which was planned and started in through the summer and fall of 2012.  Like the tiny houses, the garden has to be designed to maximize use of limited space- in this case a 1/11 acre plot, partially shaded, with half the area occupied with the houses/container/parking, and a sizable area remaining open green space.  Previously limited by a postage stamp backyard and 15 years of gardening one 5×10 community garden plot, for me (Brian) the garden work has been a real joy, as exciting as constructing the small house.  Below is a catalog of what has been planted to date, with more pictures/updates to come as the season progresses.

Fruit:  Currently planted are 15 fruit trees including: 2 apples (Honeycrisp, Fuji), 3 cherries (Montmorencey sour, 4/1 combo sweet), 2 pear (D’Anjou, Seckel), 2 fig (Paradiso, Negronne), 1 kumquat, 1 apricot (Blenheim), 2 plum (Santa Rosa, Green Gage), 1 serviceberry, 1 pomegranate (Angel Red). Many of the trees are dwarf or semi-dwarfs that will be judiciously pruned. There’s also a blackberry bush, 3 raspberry, 3 rhubarb (Victoria), 1 grape (Concord), and 2 blueberries (Reka and 3/1 combo).  While many of these trees will take a while to reach full production, we’ll certainly have apples, figs, cherries and berries this season.  Special thanks to Casey Trees in DC for subsidizing purchase of the fruit trees, and the great folks at Snell Nursery in MD.

Herbs:  Around 23 types of herbs are in now, including garlic chives,  traditional chives, Kentucky mint, bronze fennel, borage, red veined and French sorrel, French thyme, green lemon thyme, purple sage, pineapple sage, sweet marjoram, French tarragon, green fringed lavender, sweet lavender, Italian oregano, hot/spicy oregano, dill, Salem rosemary, Tuscan rosemary, lemon verbena and several types of basil.  Thanks to Debaggio’s in Chantilly, VA for perhaps the best selection of culinary herbs on the East Coast (as well as tomatoes and peppers).

Flowers: Sunny areas include a wisteria vine and Carolina creeper vine, rose bushes (x4), zinnias, sunflowers, hollyhock, speedwell, salvia, coneflowers, bee balm, verbena, anise hyssop, marigolds, beard tongue, coreopsis, and 75 tulip bulbs.  The small shaded flower garden includes asters, bleeding heart, geraniums, and a lonely but lovely peony.

Veges: There are 10 4×8 garden boxes for vegetable planting, where all sorts of things are now growing. Harvested already this season: kale, chard, arugula, lettuce, endive, turnips, carrots, snap peas, snow peas. And coming up soon: fava beans, beets, eggplant, heirloom tomatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, summer squash, cucumbers.

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