We had a great raffle for the tiny house design workshop being organized by Open Source Tiny House Sept. 14 and 15 in Washington DC. Given the level of interest we have received from couples or friends who want to take this workshop together, we are offering a special discount for 2 people who register together. More details are on the workshop website. We look forward to sharing our knowledge and experience with you over the weekend helping you design and plan your own tiny house project. See more details here. And please contact us here with any workshop questions you may have.
We spend a lot of time building, gardening, and hosting open houses, but it’s also important to have some fun once in a while. As a live music fan who loves NPR’s tiny desk concerts, I decided to organize a tiny house concert series this summer. The concerts follow the tiny desk style – just 3 to 4 songs in a small, intimate setting. The first show was played in Jay’s House – the Matchbox – by a local band Crooks and Crows. Enjoy!
We have a couple more shows on the calendar for this summer:
June 23 – the Sweater Set will play a show with all tiny instruments
August 11 – Local band Triage
Yes, bad timing and cliche to draw on Lance Armstrong, but it fits the story I want to tell. In Lance’s case it wasn’t about the bike, but about the D’s: drugs, doping, deception, denial, and duping his teammates and fans. For me, it’s not about the tiny house, but about the C’s: creating community, challenging myself to take risks and learn new skills, creatively finding new ways to live with fewer material possessions, confronting (compassionately and carefully I hope) societal norms and policies that greatly influence how we live, and collaborating with others who are interested in making our cities more vibrant through creative use of urban spaces.
Because those are a lot of C’s to cover, I’m going to concentrate on the creating community aspect in this post. The community building is what inspires me, and it also is something I know a lot of tiny house enthusiasts struggle with when first embarking on their projects: how do you find like-minded people and supporters where you live? So, I thought I’d share my story with you.
When I decided to take on this project in DC, it wasn’t because of an intense desire to build a tiny house. Yes, I had caught the tiny house bug as many do and spent hours gazing at pictures on blogs and in books. But what really inspired me was the creative challenge of doing this project in an urban space, especially on the East Coast. For a while it seemed overwhelmingly difficult, and I thought I would need to move back to the Pacific Northwest before I completed a project like this – after all, that’s where all the tiny house builders seemed to be.
In early 2010, when I first learned about tiny houses on wheels, I started googling “tiny houses and DC” every so often to try and find anyone in the area who was interested in them. I found Steve who had built one in Florida and now lived in DC (luckily he worked near me and ended up offering me great advice in the early stages of planning). But for months I couldn’t find anyone else. Then one day in October of 2010, while sitting on a bus from NYC to DC and feeling optimistic about life, I told myself that I was going to build a tiny house on wheels even if it seemed impossible to do so in DC. As someone who dreams up many ideas without implementing most, it’s important for me to fully commit to an idea or a project. Those words, no matter how quietly said to myself on that bus, were still a commitment to this endeavor. As the mountaineer W.H. Murray said,
Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too.
And something certainly moved. Excited about the commitment I had made to myself, I once again googled “tiny houses and DC” when I got home that night and, Surprise!, a blog post had been put up earlier that day about two women building tiny houses in DC. I couldn’t believe it…excited yet disappointed as well because the women (understandably) didn’t want to share their contact information or go public with their projects. But then a serendipitous moment : the following weekend I met the blog writer at a community bike workshop, and she put me in touch with the two tiny house women. From that point on I knew my endeavor would be possible.
That summer I participated in a Tumbleweed tiny house workshop and started hosting regular meetups at my apartment with people I had met there. Twenty of us or so would get together to discuss tiny houses. Several months later I met Brian, and we started brainstorming and planning the Boneyard Studios project. We held a showcase with Wangari Gardens in the Spring, where we met Jay, and since then we’ve held monthly open houses and volunteer work days on the Boneyard Studios lot while building our tiny houses.
I understand the desire of many folks building tiny houses to be private. After all, tiny houses exist in a grey area of zoning code, and most people who build them do so as a way of designing a life free from many of the pressures of modern-day society. Many are in rural or suburban areas. Yet we’ve found the interest in tiny houses in urban areas to be tremendous, and I see a huge gap in the tiny house movement for physical community spaces and showcases. Sure, we’ve got a great online community with hundreds of tiny house blogs where people share information about their projects virtually. And there is a great community that comes together for workshops (like Jay’s, Deek’s and Dee’s in addition to fairs like the one that we’ll be presenting at this summer – join us!). But, if you’re like me, and have wanted to meet people in your area who are interested in tiny houses, it’s not as easy to find a community.
There is a lack of opportunity to actually see a tiny house or help out with one before one embarks on the adventure of building, and I know how important it is to be able to step foot inside a tiny house and learn from others about mistakes or innovations they’ve made. For this reason, we have made it part of our mission to try and be as open with the public as possible about what we’re doing.
In addition to the meetup group I organize where you can sign up for a volunteer workday or come to a quarterly meetup event to talk about tiny houses in the DC area, we also host monthly open houses on the lot. This is a great opportunity to tour the tiny houses, learn about our motivations for building, and talk to our builders and architects about the details of a tiny house project. While we love to have visitors, we also want people to respect the neighbors and our space which is why we have implemented a more formal visiting process through the monthly open houses and meetups.
I understand the reluctance of most tiny house owners to open up their projects as it is a lot of effort, time, and can be risky. On the other hand, our goal is to create community and a space for others to learn about tiny houses and other creative uses of land in urban spaces through the events we organize. We hope to meet you at one of them soon. And, of course, please email me if you’re interested in discussing anything related to collaboration around creative use of urban space.
Let me start by saying I like comfort despite a relatively high tolerance for misery.
In my teens I spent more weekends in a tent, or a hand built “survival shelter” than at home, I have slept wet and cold more nights than I can count, but the coldest, most miserable I have ever been was living in a poorly insulated house in Northern Mississippi. The warmest I have ever been was in a small stone cabin in the Adirondacks heated with a wood stove (the downside was the trips to the outhouse in -20 degrees)
I also hate high utility bills, for a lot of reasons, but mostly because they are unpredictable both month to month but also over the life of a house. Investing in a well- insulated, tight house can fix this, but it also raises some challenges. I want to touch on some of these in this post, as well as some of the myths.
MYTH #1 – You need expensive windows to have an energy efficient house. I will probably talk about this more at some point, but I want to put this out there right now, it doesn’t matter how great your windows are, they still suck. They are holes in your wall that heating exits in the winter, and enters in the summer. Your money is better spent on insulation. Don’t think that’s true? Ask a building weatherization expert, and they will tell you the same thing – If your windows don’t leak air they are good enough. Did you buy really expensive windows already? Great, you still need insulation.
MYTH #2 – Small houses need less insulation. Sure, if you are going for a really inefficient house, great, do it, and you might see savings in your electric bill, vs. a typical apartment or house, but I don’t want a tiny house with the efficiency of a 1940’s Dodge power wagon (although if you have a Dodge Power Wagon sitting around that you want to give me, I would gladly take it off your hands).
MYTH #3 - Old builders know best. Building technology is a moving target, and the last 30 years have seen some of the largest leaps in building technology since the Romans figured out running water and concrete (and that took them hundreds of years). There are a lot of changes that building science has taught us. Science is the key here: people building things, testing them, and taking them apart years later.
MYTH #4 – “I can’t screw this up that bad, right?” Wrong. Some of the risks from a house that is not insulated following building codes and modern construction standards can range from sickness to death…yup, death. (Yup, you will have to read down to catch the details*).
My take on insulation: Put your money where it counts. I like stuff done right, but let’s face it, sometimes we have a budget that limits what we can do. We need to understand where and when to cut corners. This can be really challenging because sometimes even design professionals have disagreed over what is best, acceptable, or just a really bad idea. But at this point, within the architectural and building fields, this uncertainty has pretty much gone away do to the research that exists. So, rather than address all housing construction, I am going to limit my comments on insulation to the tiny house world.
Your Roof assembly is not the place to cut costs. Your insulation is more critical than you think – put your money here! (and not because heat rises). I am going to assume that all houses will have low slope roofs(that’s what some people call flat roofs) or cathedral ceilings, where ceiling height is at a premium, and building height is constrained. This means that tiny house roof assemblies will be very difficult (I would argue almost impossible) to ventilate. We call a roof vented with exterior air a cool roof, and this is how most houses are built to prevent ice dams at eaves. This can be done for cathedral ceilings, but is difficult, and requires vented soffits and ridge, and insulation must be held a minimum of an inch from the roof sheathing. – This means less R-value in your roof. This leaves three viable options for your roof.
ROOF INSULATION OPTIONS
1. Structural Insulated Panels (SIP) I think for those who have considered this option, they usually think it’s an all or nothing proposition. This doesn’t have to be the case, and there are some real benefits to going with a SIP roof.
First, inch for inch SIPs will give you as much R-Value as any other roof assembly but with a tighter envelope. Second, SIPs go up quick, so, in many cases, can allow for a roof to go on in less than a day. The last advantage I would like to point out is that SIPs offer unique structural potentials that in many cases lend themselves to a tiny house. SIPs are a type of stress-skin diaphragm that can provide additional structural integrity. It is important to point out that this additional structural advantage must be detailed properly; however, the inherent nature of the SIPs is a much stronger assembly than a stick built roof, particularly regarding dynamic loads that a tiny house experiences while trailering. So, SIPs for the roof provide more insulation, a tighter envelope, and faster assembly on site.
2. Rigid Foam Sheathing with spray foam to fill gaps. This option is a similar R-value to closed cell spray foam, more likely lower in material cost, but requires more labor. Translation: if you are not paying for labor, it will cost less, but it’s a lot of work, and you will need to use a combination of spray foam and foam cement to get a tight fit. While this will not be as airtight as spray foam, it is a good option for the roof assembly.
3. Spray Foam Insulation. There are two options that might seem confusing, but really are not that complex.
- Open cell spray foam has a much lower R-value per inch (R3.5 per inch) than Closed-Cell Spray foam and rigid foam. While it does have some real advantages over batt insulation, particularly with its ability to seal air infiltration and prevent cold spots, for a roof cavity, this will mean a much lower R-value than Options 1 and 2.
- Closed cell spray foam brings a higher R-value (as much as R6 per inch after it cures (higher at initial install) and it seals openings in the envelope making a tight skin. The final deciding factor that I would say makes closed-cell foam the best choice over either open cell foam or rigid foam sheathing is the added rigidity the structure of the framed walls get.
WALL INSULATION OPTIONS
1. Structural Insulated Panels. As with the roof, inch for inch SIPs will give you as much R-Value as any other assembly but with a tighter envelope. Second, they go up quick, with less on-site labor and the use of wall SIPs also offer unique structural potentials that in many cases lend themselves to a tiny house. SIPs are a type of stress-skin diaphragm that can provide additional structural integrity. It is important to point out that this additional structural advantage must be detailed properly, but if you are at the point that you are building your walls and roof out of SIPs, the manufacturer will be providing those details. The inherent nature of the SIPs is a much stronger assembly than a stick built wall, particularly regarding dynamic loads that a tiny house experiences while trailering. So more insulation, a tighter envelope, faster assembly on site. The drawback is that panels are sheathed on both sides, so wiring and plumbing must be run through panel chases.
2. Rigid Insulation with spray foam gaps filled. This is a good option for R-value, but working around studs, plumbing, wiring could be tough. One option is to sheath the insulation on the exterior of the house (this would be best done in combination with another type of insulation such as open cell spray-foam or batt). Rigid insulation on the exterior also provides a thermal break to prevent thermal coupling in the wall assembly, which is a significant benefit.
3. Spray Foam Insulation The real benefit of spray application in walls is its ability to seal at window and door openings as well as to seal around wires and pipes running through walls. My choice here would be closed cell spray foam – higher R-Value, added rigidity to the structure and the ability seal the wall assembly make it the prefered choice.
4. Batt Insulation. There are 3 basic options for batt insluation.
- Fiberglass. Fiberglass is the lowest R-Value per inch, but that aside it has some real drawbacks. A small tight house means condensation entering the wall assembly is a huge issue that can propagate mold in the wall cavities as well as reduce the effectiveness of the insulation. In addition to these issues, I am going to throw in the fact that rodents love this stuff, and anyone who has taken apart a vintage travel trailer has seen the evidence.
- Rock Wool. Higher R-value, but still lower than foam options and doesn’t have the issues with moisture that fiberglass does. However, condensation is still a potential issue that needs to be managed in the wall cavity with a vapor barrier.
- Alternative (green) batt – these range from wool to blue jeans. While I don’t have any experience working with these materials, R-Value moisture and pests should be considered.
FLOOR INSULATION OPTIONS
1. Structural Insulated Panels. For most tiny house projects the built-up framing is a lot of additional structure that is serving very little structural purpose. Detailed properly this could be a viable floor decking option. While I have not used this in a tiny house floor, I have used it in other floor assemblies, and think it might work well in some house applications.
2. Rigid Insulation with spray foam gaps filled. This seems to be the most reasonable option for tiny houses constructed without a vented floor cavity. If you are sealing the floor, particularly with flashing sitting on the frame, closed cell foam is the best option.
3. Spray Foam Insulation. The real issue I see with this option is access to the floor cavities, getting a sealed floor cavity makes this a great option though.
4. Radiant Barrier Insulation. This is a product that is full of controversy, and I take a middle-of-the-road position on it. Radiant Insulation (the foil bubble wrap looking stuff) claims really high R-value (as much as R-18) and seems too good to be true, except for the price, and then you really want to believe it works. I spent a week camping in the desert with a radiant insulation material to shield my tent from the sun, and I noticed a huge difference, but that was with the foil exposed to reflect the direct sun, and was not in anyway scientific. I have talked to several people in the vintage RV restoration world who swear by this type of product. Keep in mind that my 1974 Airstream has only a 1.5 inch thick wall.
I dont think that you should depend on this for your R-value, but if you choose to use it, keep a few things in mind. First you need to read how to install it, and if you don’t do exactly what they say, plan on getting a much lower R-Value. Also, the stuff you get at Lowes and Home depot is glorified bubble wrap. Those bubbles are where the insulation comes from, so you better believe bursting them will make it much less effective. This also means I would expect diminished effectiveness over time.
The product that I like best of the ones I have seen is called Prodex. Rather than using bubble wrap, it is about ¼” of closed cell foam with a radiant barrier on top. The upshot is that you can nail and staple through it. They also specify how to use the product on the outside of a building envelope which means, if you get nothing else from the product, it will do a great job as a thermal break, and can also act as house wrap.
*Finally, MYTH #4 explained. Tight houses mean less air is leaking out of your house. This “leaking” is bad for thermal efficiency, but living in a sealed jar isn’t all good either, and could be dangerous. Many conventional building materials off-gas all sorts of chemicals. This can cause a range of short-term and long-term health problems. A recent example of this is with the post-Katrina FEMA trailers. In addition to new materials chemical off gassing, your indoor air quality is impacted by things like mold, dirt, and even rodents (and their excrement).
We have seen a range of these issues in the press in the last few years. I really don’t think we need to fear these, but we need to build smarter, especially with Tiny Houses. We also need to consider those who might own our houses later in its life cycle. Maybe you plan on using it occasionally, but then you sell it to someone who lives in it full time. The chemicals you put in your house might not be an impact to someone in the house for short term stays, but the daily impact could be much more significant.
The other issue you need to be careful of with tight envelopes is making sure you are properly venting your combustion appliances as well as your waste lines and tanks. Putting a carbon monoxide detector in your house if you have combustion devices is a must. See this article for more details.
Thermal Bridge – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_bridge This is an important concept, and often an overlooked issue.
Like most people building tiny houses, I had limited options when purchasing plans for a tiny house over a year ago (up until recently there were only a couple options), and none of them fully met all my needs.* So, I did what I saw others doing and bought the Tumbleweed Fencl plans, knowing that I would significantly alter the interior. But unlike most people building tiny houses, I was fortunate to be able to spend a lot of time in the Fencl this summer while it was sited on the Boneyard Studios lot. While there are many things I like about Tumbleweed’s design of tiny houses and I have benefited from their expertise, I quickly realized there were also many aspects of the Fencl that didn’t work for me very well.
I think it’s necessary to follow plans for a project like a tiny house on wheels, but there is also a benefit to leaving some room to change pieces of the design as you go along. The typical tiny house look – traditional wood siding, pine interior – just looks too cabin-like for our urban location. Nothing against the cabin-in-the-woods aesthetic, but in an urban environment I wanted to try something a bit different.
So, what a relief and joy that now – six months into this project – I finally have architectural plans being drawn up for my house. It makes brainstorming about design issues and implementing those ideas much easier – very helpful since the design has changed considerably from when the little house first rolled up from South Carolina. Here are just a few of the changes we’ve made:
Exterior look: A four-foot locust porch attaches to the trailer and can be removed and stored inside when ready to move. The extra foot of porch space (a lot of tiny house designs just have 2-3 feet) makes a big difference…you can actually sit on the porch without your feet hanging off of it. Two boxes at the front of the trailer (back of the house) will store my water tanks and serve as extra storage, but they will be wrapped with cedar siding in a way that doesn’t make them look like boxes hanging off of a house but rather integrated into the design of the house (pictures to come when completed).
We are implementing a rain-screen approach on both the house and roof. To get an idea of what that looks like, here is a rain screen design on a much larger house. We are using locust and cedar from a local lumber mill in Virginia that sells sustainable rough-sawn lumber (from already-downed local trees and construction sites). Stay tuned for a future post on the benefits of rain screen siding approach and more on working with rough-sawn lumber as siding.
Kitchen: As someone who enjoys cooking and conversing with others while cooking, I didn’t like the fact that the Fencl’s kitchen is so closed off – if you’re cooking you can’t see or interact with anyone who may be in the main room. Pictures of Fencl kitchen here. Jay even mentions in his Tumbleweed workshops that he doesn’t do much cooking, so it doesn’t surprise me that he would opt for a small kitchen space. However, I wanted my kitchen to feel more open and be multi-functional – something similar to the Protohaus kitchen pictured here. By having a stool or two that can saddle up to the countertop, a friend can sit and chat with me while I cook or with someone seated in the main room.
Loft: The loft in the Fencl felt too claustrophobic to me. I knew this just from seeing pictures, but being able to hang out in it confirmed it for me. So, Tony built dormers and a new roofline on my house. The difference is huge – it feels so much more spacious and the light coming in from the dormers creates a lot more natural light in the whole house. We also plan on creating a little platform off the loft and a ladder that will be counterweighted to raise up when not in use.
Size of features: The proportional aspect of features should be taken into account in tiny houses, but it doesn’t need to inform every decision. I got a great deal on some large windows on Craigslist, but when I taped out the dimensions on the tiny house I realized they would look goofy on such a small structure, so I opted to spend more for smaller, custom windows that fit the dimensions of the tiny house better.
However, not every feature in a tiny house needs to be small. While originally I thought I would opt for everything smaller inside the tiny house, I quickly realized a lot of the tiny features just annoyed me. For instance, I couldn’t easily walk through the small door of the Fencl with a couple bags of groceries. The entrance between the kitchen and main area was also too narrow for my tastes. I tested out washing a soup pan in the small sink and was frustrated by its size. Thus, I’m doing some things differently like putting on a regular-sized exterior door. Furthermore, by creating a countertop/cutting board (made from paperstone) that can sit over my sink in the kitchen, I can use a larger sink without sacrificing valuable counter space.
Again, being able to try out the space in an already-built tiny house was very informative and made me rethink some of my initial ideas on how I would build my interior, opting now for creating features that are multi-functional, but not necessarily always tiny.
For those of you who have used Tumbleweed’s plans as a basis for your projects, what are some of the design modifications you have made?
*I really wanted to purchase plans for the The Protohaus, but after waiting many months hoping they would be done, they still were not available when I needed to purchase mine. Had I known about Dan Louche’s plans when I began, I would have purchased them since his are the only available plans I’ve found that include dormers and an open kitchen design spanning both sides of the trailer). Once completed, my tiny house plans will be available as well. As someone who has shopped around for plans and drawn inspiration from many resources, I think having more options rather than fewer is a good thing.
It was a busy weekend at the boneyard studios lot. Thanks to beautiful fall weather and the friends who came out to the lot, we are slowly making some good progress on the exterior of my house. A future post will address the new design for my house and some of the technical details of the rain screen siding we are installing. For the time being though, here are some pictures from the weekend’s work party.
DC is preparing for Hurricane Sandy: the metro system has closed, federal government has shut down, and sandbags were put in all around my neighborhood. While I’m a bit worried about the fate of our little houses, I do feel assured knowing that my house and trailer already survived 60mph+ winds during a storm earlier this summer that left us without power on the lot for five days. Moreover, the house is much more weatherproof now than it was a few weeks ago.
Last I wrote about the house’s progress, Tony was still working on the roof. Since then he has finished the roof and dormers, we put Tyvek drain wrap around the whole house in preparation for the rain screen siding (more on this in a future post), and Tony put the roofing on early last week. No more blue tarp over the house…thank goodness!
Last week I planned a work party to help me start putting up siding. Instead of working on siding though, we decided to concentrate on getting in the windows this weekend given the approaching storm. A big thanks to the friends who helped wrap windows, put up furring strips, and install windows. Extra thanks to the window team – Tony, Abby, Matt, and Matt – who spent all Saturday afternoon cutting down boards, building window frames, and installing my windows.
It’s amazing what a roof and some windows will do – the project actually looks like a house now rather than just a wooden box wrapped in Tyvek and wearing a blue tarp.
Pictures from the work party on Saturday