The Search for Space: where do you park a tiny house?

How do I find a place to park a tiny house?  After two years of talking with thousands of people about tiny houses at our monthly open houses, workshops and conferences, that is the most common question I get asked.  Therefore, as Boneyard Studios has started our quest for the next location where the Matchbox and Pera houses will move later this fall, we realized that we should be documenting the process of searching for new space.

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Exploring DC’s alleys

Thus far it’s been an exciting, although exhausting, endeavor as we’ve been having multiple meetings a week with vacant property owners, homeowners, city officials, and community organizations.  Friends and a real estate agent have been sending me ideas for properties.  Of course, most of these leads will not become our next location, but it’s still been fun to explore the city’s alleys and vacant properties and start paying attention to spaces that I have previously never noticed.  As a geographer, I can’t neglect to bring mapping into this quest, so we are also working with a GIS student who is doing an analysis for us using city databases of vacant and blighted properties and alley lots to help narrow down the properties we consider.

Private lot with a shipping container and truck

Private lot with a shipping container and truck

 

The potential properties are everything from backyard space to vacant, very urban (and visible) properties to huge lands that have yet to be developed.  The ownership varies from private homeowners to developers to city-owned property, all of which will affect what we can do with the space.   Both Jay and I have a preference to partner with the city and/or a community-driven organization/business, and we just had a great meeting discussing this possibility and some potential properties. As we continue with this search for new space, stay tuned for posts on the process.  To the extent that we can share our process publicly, we will and hope it can serve as resource to others, both individuals in the tiny house community and to organizations in other cities who are working on similar initiatives.  And, of course, if you have ideas for locations or would like to chat with us about partnerships, please send us an email.

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insulation options for tiny houses

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 #1You 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 #2Small 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.

Glossary:

R-value – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/R-value_(insulation)
Insulation – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Building_insulation

Thermal Bridge – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thermal_bridge This is an important concept, and often an overlooked issue.

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

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 (TinyHouseDesign.com)

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.

lee’s tiny house design

I recently bought the framing plans for the Tumbleweed Fencl after attending Tumbleweed’s tiny house workshop here in DC this past summer.  I plan on doing my interior differently than the Fencl and am still in the design phase of the interior.

While I don’t plan to actively travel with my tiny house, I do expect I’ll move it a few times.  Therefore, I want to follow the advice given by Tumbleweed Tiny Homes to keep it within the width and height allowances that make it easy to drive on most major roads in the country without a special permit.  Most Tumbleweed models are 8 feet wide by 16 or 18 feet long and include a loft for sleeping and a front porch.  I am going to build mine out to 20 feet long and not build the porch that is standard on most Tumbleweed models.  Since I don’t plan to move it that often, I will build up my own little deck or patio that is removable so I can use that extra few feet of the trailer as interior space.

Here are some of the interior designs of other tiny houses that I really like:

Protohaus – they have done a great job with the design of the interior and should their plans be available in time for my build I will buy them.  Click for more pictures.

Chris and Melissa’s Tiny Tack House in Washington State.  They have beautiful photos of the interior on their blog.

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