Thursday, April 30, 2009

Odds and Ends

Something that isn't talked about much when considering tiny houses is relationships. Specifically, Arlene and I - my wife and I - are building a tiny house. And planing to live in it. Together.

The building of the house isn't very difficult so far. But there are a zillion decisions to be made along the way: the finishing on the floor, the placement of lighting fixtures, this sink or that, these nails or these, work on it till 7:30 PM or 8:00 PM... And each of these decisions has the potential for conflict. Arlene wants the country-looking sink, but maybe I just want something standard.

We really noticed this in the floor plan development. We're using the Tumbleweed Fencl as a starting point, but have made modifications. In January and February Arlene, who is a CAD Drafter, would come home with modifications and I would critique this and that: "we don't have enough storage", "there won't be enough space to fit through here", "where will we keep the ________?"

And here is the gold in this process: we learned more about each other and the way we think and communicate along the way. I spent 15 years as a Software Quality Assurance Engineer so being critical is second nature to me. But it dosen't feel good to be on the other side of it. I was bringing things up to be addressed, not poo-pooping her work. So now, I'm working on trying too point out the good things as well as the areas that need work.

On the other side, Arlene was using the nail-gun and it jammed. It does this frequently enough that it didn't seem like a big deal at first. But then Arlene started getting tense and frustrated and I came over to look over her shoulder. Two nails had jammed side by side in the space where one nails fits. As I looked at my fingers were itching to try and fix it. And, BANG! We got more gold. Arlene sees/feels me hovering nearby and assumes I don't have confidence in her ability to deal with it. This makes her more frustrated. But what's going on for me is that I see a problem - a puzzle - that needs solved. It has nothing to do with her.

We almost never fight. We talk and try to express feelings and stay in the moment. She tells me how she feels about my hovering and I tell her I have complete confidence in her abilities and that my technical mind has shifted in gear. I love to figure things out and solve problems. For Arlene, problems are problems. They're in the way. So Arlene got a deeper understanding of why I might hover near by when there is a problem that needs solving.

It turns out that Jeff is a creative problem solver who revels in figuring things out. I don't get frustrated fixing things. Arlene is a creative creator. This is a woman who can truly dazzle me with her ability to "think outside of the box". Together we complement each other. We saw this in developing out floor plans. Arlene would come home with modifications, I'd critique, she'd modify and we slowly honed into a set of solutions such that one day she came home, put the drawing down and I had no critiques.

I tend to ground us in practical concerns, she designs and develops - sometimes wildly. But she can be practical too. After so many years doing QA work I am, sometimes (ok, frequently), a perfectionist. Arlene has taken up the motto: "Just shim it."

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Downsizing – How To - Part 2 of 3

How much time and energy do you want to spend on your 'things'?

When I buy something, even if it's from a thrift shop, I've spent time looking for it and money to purchase it. I've learned to pay cash instead of using credit so that I'm not paying the hidden cost of interest on it as well. Even if it was free from Freecycle, it cost me time to read the listings and time and money for gasoline to pick it up.

I pay rent to house the item while it lives with me, I also need to pay to move it when I move, some people pay a cleaning person to keep it dusted, buy a security system to make sure that no one steals it, and some of us fall for the idea that if it feels crowded in our home that it's a good idea to pay rent to hide things in a storage facility. (Ug, don't do it!!!)

When does the time and money suck stop when it comes to the things we own?
Certainly not when we want to get rid of it. This requires research to see what can I sell it for, renting a van to move it out of storage so that I can sell it easier, time to write the blurb to put onto Craigslist or Ebay, time to meet with people to see if they are interested in buying it, and on and on.

I definitely plan on buying less in the future.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Downsizing – How To - Part 1 of 3

How am I downsizing my possessions and how can you do this too?

How do you decide what to keep and what to get rid of?
Do you really love the item or are you keeping it because it cost you a lot to buy it, a good friend gave it to you or you'll fit into it again someday when you lose weight? Unless you really love it and use it often, it can go. If you want to keep it because of a memory, then take a picture of it so you'll still 'have it' to remember it by.

How much space do you want to fill?
Although Jeff and I will be moving into a home with a footprint of 8'x20' we are currently renting a 700sf apartment and have rented as large a space as a 2200sf live/work loft. Needless to say we have things to sell off. Those things include furniture that we love and use daily (but won't have space for) as well as items from a storage space that I have had for 4 years and haven't looked into in about 6 months. All of it goes. Craigslist, Ebay, gifting to friends, charity donations. I've done yard sales but won't do them again.

The emotional aspect of downsizing:
The other day I felt very overwhelmed. Jeff was helping me empty my storage unit and I had forgotten how much was in there. As I wheeled the MIG welder to the moving van I smiled remembering the last item that I made with it but then thought, "This will need to be sold. I'm losing part of my identity!"

That's often how we think about many of the items that we buy. For example, we buy a shirt because maybe the 'look' says something about us to others or by wearing it we feel a certain way. We don't usually buy it because it simply covers what society says it should or have decided that it will keep us warm enough in cold weather.

I had to ask myself, "If my place were to burn down today, could I live without this?" I knew that I certainly didn't need it in daily living and so would not replace it. I can now sell it and feel more at peace with the choice.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Installing Insulation

This stuff goes pretty quick. Measure, use a chalk line to mark it, cut it with a box cutter, stuff it in.

Then Arlene used a soy-based insulation foam to seal around the edges. We left the two panels in front unsealed for now as we are finalizing some decisions around the shower.

Both of us have full days so during the week it is harder to get a lot done. In fact, this weekend is going to be mostly about making decisions about our shower, figuring out how much wood to order for our second batch, and moving some stuff in the shop around to make space for that wood, as well as a delivery of windows and other items.

So that's all for now. More soon!

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Downsizing – Beloved Objects

Another bunch of items I will need to sell off will be my tools. I'm keeping my hand tools but the big ones really need to go.

Want to buy a TIG welder? The tank is still full. No?

How about a wood & metal cutting band saw, drill press, metal cutting chop saw, roll/brake/shear, scroll saw, belt/disk sander, bench grinder or plasma cutter? Although they have been absolutely, fantasticly fun playmates, and have enabled me to do things that human hands alone cannot, I will definitely need to part with them. They’ve been sitting in Mike and Carol's garage or my 10'x10' storage space for a total of about 4 years now.

Ok, ok, yes, I admit it.

"Hi, my name is Arlene and I rented a storage room. I'm now in recovery though because today Jeff and I emptied my storage unit and moved everything to a space where I can more easily sell them. They will be posted on Craigslist or Ebay within the next month. I intend to put a link to my posts of items for sale on our blog in case anyone is interested in buying anything or simply understanding that downsizing possessions can be a lot of work."

This move from storage has freed up $150 monthly and when I sell the tools it will cover the bit more of my share of building the tiny cottage that wasn't covered by my income tax refund. This of course means that my savings will stay intact a bit longer… which is a huge motivator.

I am giving up possessions from my past to start a new chapter in life; a new adventure. We are building our own cottage and in a couple of years I plan on enrolling in a cabinet building/furniture making program. Knowing that my loss of big-tool-use isn't permanent (after using a bunch of them to build our cottage) makes the realization of getting rid of them a bit easier. Not at all easy, just easier.

If you have decided that living in a much smaller space than you are in now is something you really want to do (right now or in the future), what favorite items of yours won’t be able to fit into your new space? How will you deal with that?

Monday, April 20, 2009

The Floor on the Floor and Back Again

Once we cut all the floor shims, we lifted the floor frame off the trailer and turned it upside down on the floor next to the trailer to work on. We nailed the shims in place on the now upside down floor frame (the underside of the frame so that the top has a more consistent surface area) and then got to work installing the flashing.

The flashing is mainly to protect the underside of the floor frame and insulation from road debris and to prevent rodents from entering the cottage from the bottom. To that end, we used a staple gun to fix the flashing to the frame with staples every 3 or so inches. Note that we don't seal the flashing because if any water did get up in there we'd want it to flow out.

It took three of us to get the flashed floor frame back on the trailer. This took a bit of thinking. It was pretty heavy at this point. Also, our floor frame is made of 3 parts: front, middle and back. At each connection point there is a weak spot. We didn't want the frame to separate as we moved it into place.

Our saw horses are about the same height as the tops of the wheel wells, so we put one in front of the wheel well and one behind - both right next to the trailer. This gave us an even tipping point. Then we stood the frame up on its side, tilted it against this new pivot (so the frame was supported in the back, middle and front by a saw horse, wheel well and saw horse in that order), and slowly lowered it into place onto the trailer.

We used 3 inch lag bolts in the front 2/3 rds to secure the floor framing to the trailer deck. With the flashing in place, we were concerned about knowing where to drill through the deck to make sure we connected with the frame studs. This turned out to be no problem since we had a nice line of staples to follow.

Since the back of the floor frame has shims, we used progressively longer bolts going back, measured so we always had 1 1/2 inch bite into the studs of the frame (so with a shim of 1 inch, and the deck at 1 1/2 inches, our total bolt length at that point was 4 inches). The plans suggest a bolt every 2 or 3 feet, but, being paranoid, we did a bit more than that.

So that pretty much sums our weekend. This week we should be moving forward on insulation and adding a few supports here and there.

If you aren't aware of it, the Tiny House Company is building a Fencl (the name of the tiny house design we bought from them). It is amazing how fast you can put one of these together if you have 2 or 3 full-time dedicated, experienced construction workers on it. The best source of information for the progress on it can be found on the Tiny House Blog. Stop by there and tell 'em Jeff and Arlene sent you!

Downsizing - It's hard. "Just Do It"

It's a fact that I can't take most of what I own with me when we move into our tiny hand-built cottage in August. I want to practice what I have recently read was called 'voluntary simplicity' but sometimes it’s still hard to part with items. Some items have value or meaning to me. They evoke feelings.

Books being one of them. I love books, almost everything is written either in books or on the web and I want to know about everything. How to make shoes, who invented eyeglasses, what makes people laugh; I want to learn all of it. I think it's mom's fault. When we were little she bought my brother and me a book called "Tell Me Why" and another called "Lots More Tell Me Why". The tag line on the books was something like 'answers to hundreds of questions children ask'.

She also used to take us for nature walks which probably started my love for the outdoors. I bought the Foxfire books as well as a bunch by Tom Brown, Jr about urban or wilderness survival as well as animal tracking.

Well, yesterday I did the first pass at my bookshelf and can proudly tell you that 6 boxes were sold to a local book store. Now I have only another 7 boxes to sort through!

How does someone figure out their favorite-of-favorite books that they don't want to part with? The ones that I buy can't be found at the library, even through the Link+ program.

How many boxes of books will be allowed to follow me to the new cottage?

Sunday, April 19, 2009

On the Level

I've been talking about how our trailer isn't level. In fact, the floor of our build space isn't level either. This makes it challenging to create a fairly flat, level floor for our tiny cottage. Is a flat floor important? I mean, whenever we move the trailer the floor will flex anyway, and we don't generally play marbles on the living room floor. So what's the big deal? Certainly it would be simpler to just ignore it.

But Arlene and I are both the type of people who walk into a room and notice if a picture is 1/32 inch lower on one side than the other. And while we realize that we aren't going to make this thing perfect, and that no one will notice our mistakes as readily as we will, we also note that the degree to which this trailer is off, and the way in which it is off, will impact building the walls and roof.

From the front of the trailer to about mid-way between the two axles (the front 2/3 rds), the trailer is straight and true and easy to level. But from between the axles on back it dips so that if the front of the trailer is level, the rear end is about 1 1/2 inches lower than the front. Fortunately, the slope seems roughly constant. The trailer is made for hauling vehicles and normally comes with ramps that attach to the back, so it makes sense that the back end dips - that would be the end you load the car on from.

After leveling the front, I put a nail near each corner of our floor frame. Then I tied a string - very tightly - from one corner to the next so that I had a string box floating above the floor frame. On the front two nails, I set the string height at about 1/8th inch up from the floor frame. Then, using a level, I inched the string up or down each of the nails until the string was level. At this point, I had about 1 1/2 inches between the string and floor frame at the back. From the front to mid-way between the axles the string stayed at about 1/8th inch above the frame.

A few things to note: I checked the levelness of the string by eyeballing the string against a long leveling tool and doing this at several points on the string to make sure he string was taught and that I was being as accurate as I could. Also, if the strings are all level, the strings going from front to back and the ones going from side to side should be at the same height on the nails in the corners.

So I needed to create a shim that was 1 1/2 inches tall for the back. Then I needed to create other shims to support the other members of the frame - including angled ones for the sides because the depth of the shim needed to be shallower as we moved forward.

Measuring from between the axles to the end of the floor frame is 90 inches. Between the axles we need a shim of zero height; at the back we need one 1 1/2 inches. So we have a long short triangle. Measuring from between the axles, or the point of the triangle, to each place I need a shim gives me some measurement, say Y inches. The shim for that location is (Y times 1.5) divided by 90 inches tall. [ 1.5Y/90= height of shim. ]

The front to back boards needed to be cut such that one end was taller than the other, but I used the same the process to find the height of the end points, marked the board at those heights and drew a line from one mark to the other and cut it along the line.

Well, that was probably more than ever wanted to know about leveling. We made lots of other progress this weekend. I'll post pics and notes on in the next day or so.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Recent Progress

First, I should note that I'm still in school and so have to study a fair amount. Doing that at the build space means that when I need a break I can do some work on the cottage. But it has the down side of occasionally distracting me from my school work. :-)

Arlene has done most of the work of putting the floor framing together. In the photo below you can see that we used treated wood around areas that will be more likely to be exposed to water. There a few more photos of the floor framing here.

Originally we intended to build the floor frame next to the trailer on the shop floor. That is, in fact, how the plans suggest you do it. However, the dimensions of our trailer are different than the plans expect. So if we built the floor frame exactly as the plans suggest we'd be disappointed when we put it on the trailer and found it didn't fit. Measuring and setting up the frame on the trailer made more sense. We could adjust as we went. So the tip here, if you building one of these, is to measure measure measure.

Now, we still have to work out some issues around leveling, but more on that later.

And finally, here I am sanding out the inside of the wine barrel.

Are you wondering what we have a wine barrel for? Me too.

Downsizing – Needs vs Wants

I’ve never been a ‘shopper’ but now I’m reallllly starting to think about any new purchases differently. This project is just starting and already I see changes in my behavior. I wonder:

Do I really need this?

Will it fit in the cottage? And

Will Jeff roll his eyes and sigh when I bring an item home saying,
"Sweetie, really, it followed me home. Can I keep it?"

For example, two months ago I was out and about alone and bought a small 'puzzle table' at about the same time that we were putting the finishing touches on our interior layout. After the purchase I looked online and found that it was made by an artist named David Kawecki in the 90's. I like his chair too but it won't seat both of us and is probably too big to come with us anyway.

Well, I bought the table because I thought it was an ingenious design (it disassembles into 5 pieces and can be stored flat when not in use) and because Jeff loves puzzles. I really thought he'd smile when he saw it.

I do love the table but Jeff did sigh when he saw it, and although he didn't roll his eyes, he definitely didn't smile either. I can deal with the fact that he might not be as enthusiastic about the table as I am but after trying to figure out where in the new floor plan I could 'keep' it, I'm afraid we will have no room for it. It'll have to go.

So now I have decided that until we finish the cottage I will have to start carrying my digital camera in case I see something that I think I might want to buy. I'll learn to take a picture of the item in question instead of buying it so that I can 'possess' it but it won't own me. (This idea will come in handy when Jeff and I travel in the future as I always sneak some nifty looking rocks into my luggage to take home. Never the tiny ones either. Pictures of rocks will be much lighter after a month of travel.)

We have also discussed trying to figure out what items to keep based on the square footage of personal storage space that we each will be allowed. We can use string on the floor to outline the box size then simply assign it a height. How many books, art supplies and clothes will fit in there?

Once we move into the cottage it will be very easy not to buy anything new since there will be no place to put it. The floor plan we have come up with uses healthy 'green building' materials, will be beautiful and will efficiently serve all of our needs and wants in a home.

Monday's post will be
Downsizing - It's sometimes hard but "Just Do It"

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Downsizing – Part One

I've done it before, this thing called 'downsizing' of my possessions. It was 1998, I was recently divorced and living in SF as a single mom. I couldn't find full-time work in The City but heard through co-workers that there was an opening in their Seattle office.

I was offered the job and it was freeing to get rid of most everything that owned me in anticipation of our move. Freeing was definitely what it felt like when I considered moving.

What size moving van would we need, there were steps to move from so should I hire movers (Delancey Street Movers are amazing!), what size apartment will we need to move to and in what neighborhood to keep it all safe. Those answers would severely limit our choices of livable spaces simply because of what we owned, and trust me, I've never enjoyed limits very much.

Well, I gave away cherished items to friends who had admired them, sold things at a yard sale or gave them to charity. We left California with only the smallest enclosed trailer that held an antique birdseye maple armoire, some clothes, books, toys, 2 bikes and a few basic living items.

If it didn't fit in the trailer then it couldn't come with us.
It's a wonderful feeling that I look forward to again…

If it doesn’t fit into this tiny new cottage, then it won’t come with us.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Trailer Modifications

The plans call for removing roughly every other board from the deck. This helps reduce weight and prevent water from pooling under the floor framing. The screws that hold the deck to the trailer require a square bit instead of flat-head, Philips, or star (also called torx). We only had one suborn screw, probably because the trailer is new.

Sometimes a quick way to get a screw unstuck is to use a small, flat tipped, metal chisel. Place the tip of the chisel against the edge of the screw at about a 45 degree angle from the deck. Tap the chisel until you have a good dent in the side of the screw head. Keeping the chisel at about 45 degrees from the deck, rotate the chisel - keeping the tip in the dent you just created - so that tapping chisel will tend to turn the screw counter-clockwise. A few taps may loosen the screw enough so you can use the square-head bit to remove the screw.

Of course, if the head is stripped out it's better to just drill the screw out.

In the front of the trailer there is (was) a low bar. We needed to remove this, otherwise we'd have to figure out how to build the walls around it. Arlene used a rotozip, which cut through the supports quickly. Then she smoothed the edges with a grinder. Arlene is always telling me she likes metal, but all I see her do to metal is hack it, cut it, grind it, and otherwise turn it into dust.

Another thing you might notice from the pictures is that we have a set of jacks under all 4 corners of the trailer. The jacks will stabilize our work surface. Now if the trailer were perfectly square and level, making level floors and square walls would be a snap. Unfortunately, the trailer is actually bowed such that the highest point is above the wheels. But we have a plan...

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Starting to look like a shop!

Our first delivery of wood came on Monday. We didn't want to leave a bunch of wood sitting around too long (avoiding warpage), so this load mainly consisted of what we'll need for the floor and the front wall framing - some 2x4s, 2x6s, 1x4 fir tongue and groove for the floor and some plywood.

Then on Wednesday evening I gave Arlene an early birthday present.

After talking to several folks about the benefits of screws vs nails for framing, we went with ring-shank nails. Apparently screws will hold better than regular nails, but tend to snap under shearing loads. Nails are more likely to bend, but could wiggle out over time if we move the trailer frequently. Ring shank nails are a compromise between the two and have the added advantage of speed (with Arlene's new toy).

In general, I tend to assume that everything takes longer to do than you initially think it will. Since we have a deadline for our project (July / August), some of our choices reflect an interest in speed. For example, I've read several times that folks found used trailers for sale on the net. When we really started looking for a used one there were none available, so we bought the one we have. If we had more time and were willing to wait for the right sized trailer to become available, we could have saved anywhere from $1,000 to $2,000. But we also thought that a used trailer could have rust, need rewiring, break work or other problems that would take us time and money too.

As it is, there are several modifications we need to make to our trailer before we can build and put the floor framing on. In fact, the Fencl plans give a general idea of the floor framing, but indicate that modifications will be needed depending on the trailer. Our trailer is different enough from the basic plans that we'll need to employ some creative problem solving...

Sunday, April 5, 2009

The Foundation

We have a foundation. Our foundation is a $3124.70, Iron Eagle, 7000 Series trailer. It's gross (trailer and load) vehicle weight is 7000 lbs. It has a tubular frame, electric brakes and a longer tongue than many others in its class. The longer tongue gives the trailer a bit more stability on the road and means that we could distribute the weight a bit more evenly. Normally, you'd want around 15% of the trailer weight on the tongue. With ours we can go as low as 10%, but we don't need to.

We ordered the trailer about two weeks ago, and yesterday Rick and I picked it up with my Jeep Wrangler. It is important to note that we will NOT be towing the fully built cottage with the Jeep. My Jeep has a class three hitch, and ideally we'd want a class four to tow more than 5000lbs - and our cottage, even after being extremely conscientious about weight - will be up there.

So why not put a class 4 hitch on the Jeep? The Wrangler isn't built for towing. This kind of load would ruin the clutch, and the frame isn't built for it. Still, I may be able to use the Jeep for backing the finished cottage into tight spots, or other fine maneuvering - like pulling our trailer out of the build space when the time comes (the parking lot isn't long enough for a big truck).

Now, I haven't done a lot of towing before. I was actually a bit nervous. That's why I brought Rick along (well, and he's fun to hang out with). So after picking up the trailer we went to DMV and got a permanent trailer registration for 38 bucks (so once I put the plates on, the trailer is street legal). Then we found an empty parking lot and I practiced backing up with Rick's patient guidance. It turns out that it's easier to do gradual, arc-like, maneuvers than sharp, kink-like turns - you can get stuck quickly that way. Also, when pulling forward to straighten out, I found that if I cut the wheel hard in the opposite direction over just the last few feet, it sets the trailer and Jeep up in a nice arc for backing up.

Much to my surprise, I only had to pull forward and back about 3 or 4 times to get the trailer right into the build space. I expected it to take a lot longer and be a lot more frustrating.

Anyway, the trailer is 18 feet long - not including the tongue - and 7 feet wide between the wheel wells. This is our foundation. Before we begin building, we'll need to bring some tools in and make a few modifications to the trailer.

Also, Arlene's birthday is coming up. She likes tools. Maybe I'll get her something useful for the project.