on choosing plans: designing by doing

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.

Fencl getting moved from the Boneyard Studios Lot

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).

Locust rain screen siding and deck

Locust rain screen siding and deck

Deck in construction

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.

Rain screen siding going up on tiny house

Protohaus Sink/Kitchen

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.

View of Protohaus open-style kitchen in back

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.

Hanging out in Fencl loft

Loft from inside with dormers and shallower pitched roof

New roof, EPDM rubber roofing on (preparing for rain screen siding over it), and new dormers

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.

fall is for building: work weekend at the boneyard lot

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.

Lots of lumber – work site from above

Friends helping treat all the cedar boards

The new planer being put to use – cedar boards for my loft flooring

Perfect weather and sun to caulk the windows

Siding – it’s a tedious process, but the cedar smells so good!

Locust deck and siding

beautiful fall colors in the graveyard - view from the lot

Beautiful fall colors in the graveyard – view from the lot

Big tree that shades the lot

Two of the boneyard houses at dusk

preparing for the hurricane: roof and windows on lee’s house

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.

Naked house

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!

House with EPDM rubber roofing, furring strips, and Tyvek Drain wrap

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

Pixel and Wonka awaiting their instructions for the work day

The crew prepares to install the windows

Cutting locust for window frames

Building window frames

putting on furring strips

Wrapping the windows

window wrap

Installing the windows

It was a long day…nap time!

build update: lee’s tiny house

House Update: I came back to DC after a few weeks on the West Coast and can see progress on my house – thanks, Tony!  We were feeling frustrated with all the modifications needed, but they are mostly done now.  Tony rebuilt the front wall, was able to get all the walls plum (yay!), has sheathed the walls, and cut out the windows.  Next week he will frame the dormers and put in the rafters, so that I can order my roofing.  I hope to help out more with building the actual interior portion of my house, but in the meantime I’ve been keeping busy (and having fun) trying to find supplies and appliances on Craigslist and at various salvage and reuse stores in the area.

Old front wall sitting outside tiny house

Inside house, window rough openings and roof off

Windows:  While I was hoping to find used windows, most of the windows I found at reuse stores and on Craigslist felt too big for my tiny house.  So, I just placed an order with a Baltimore-based fabricator of windows called Weathermaster.  Their custom window prices are quite reasonable.  I ordered 9 of their mid-range windows (they have good, better and best options) – 3 for the loft area and 6 for downstairs – for a total price of $1850.

Toilet:  Before I left for the West Coast, a friend and I made a last-minute trip out to West Virginia to buy a used toilet.  I never thought I’d be getting excited about (or willing to travel 4 hours for) a used toilet, but it saved me $900.  Incinolets are incinerating toilets that are a great off-grid option, but they are expensive, costing about $1800-$2000 new.  So, I started scouring Craigslist and Ebay.  I found a couple options and the customer service folks at Incinolet were really helpful – they took the serial numbers of the used models and advised me on which ones they thought were good deals or not based on their age.  The one in WV was a newer model and in good condition, so it was worth the trip out to Morgantown and the $900 I spent for the toilet.

The incinerating toilet I bought

Architectural Salvage Stores: Earlier this week I combined a trip to BWI airport with a trip to some Baltimore architectural salvage stores. Wow!  These Baltimore stores/warehouses are so much larger and better than any of the Habitat or Reuse stores in the DC suburbs.  One had a warehouse full of just salvage hardwood flooring.  Although there are a few more in the area, I only had time to check out two: Second Chance - a bit pricier than the other store, the Loading Dock, but it had more options and was better organized.  Plus, they had a Finnish sauna unit for sale for only $200! – Sauna on the tiny house lot perhaps?

The Loading Dock Architectural Salvage Store in Baltimore, MD

View of Baltimore housing from the Loading Dock’s parking lot

Warehouse at Second Space

Tiny house community discussion with Jay Shafer:  Last week when I was out in California I was able to meet up with Jay Shafer of Tumbleweed Tiny Homes for lunch.  He’s sort of considered the founder of the tiny house movement, and I took his workshop last summer here in DC.  We chatted about city code and design and creation of tiny house communities.  Fun and inspiring!

Well, that’s the August update for me.  While we’ve had many setbacks this summer, the lot and projects are starting to really take shape.

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.

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 (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

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?

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