Monday, June 29, 2009

Birthing a House (Part 1)

It happens all of the time. New parents hire a babysitter so they can go out to dinner alone to feel like a couple again, to revive the romance, to have some fun like they used to. What do they talk about? The baby.

Well, we’ve become better at communicating with each other because of the house. We now think that’s because all we seem to talk about (since April) when we’re not building the house… is the house.

It needs to be ready for occupancy mid August; the end of August at the absolute latest. That means that the shell (inside and out), the built-ins and all of the utilities need to be completed in about 6 weeks. Since we’ve never done most of this stuff before we have no idea how long it’s supposed to take, nor how long it will actually take. From experience, I can tell you that some tasks often take longer than we expected.

Jeff is now a full-time construction guy/electrician/plumber/window installer/soon to be roofer. And he looks at me like I’ve completely lost my mind when I say that unless he is really, really enjoying this that he needs to make sure to take a weekday or two off to avoid burn out. This project is supposed to be fun. I join him weeknights and we enjoy working together on it (much better than alone) so this is what we do together most weekends.

Being so focused on building though, now we wonder if we’ve waited too long to start our major downsizing. We’ve done quite a bit but we look around our apartment and it doesn’t look like we’ve done anything. It has nothing to do with it being hard to let go of items, it’s simply been a matter of available time. All spare time has been working on this project since the beginning of April while other time was spent on schoolwork or work. We’ve been busy. No hobbies, no lounging at the pool, no hiking, … just building.

So, right now I’m pushing for a babysitter for around the end of July for a couple of weeks.

I have negotiated a trade with Mike. He has been answering our electrical, plumbing and building questions because he has completely (hands-on) remodeled his own house from the ground up. He also builds custom furniture and cabinetry. Absolutely beautiful work! Well, I am trading him my Mig Welder setup for custom cabinets and desk. Jeff and I were going to make this cottage from scratch, almost alone, but…

I’m thinking that we can finish the whole bottom of the house (inside and out including utilities) and hand it over to Mike so that he can create the built-ins without us in the way. The major stuff will be completed so we can relax a bit and shift our focus for a couple of weeks to downsizing which also needs to get done by the same deadline. Jeff and I will be doing a mad dash at posting absolutely everything that won’t fit into the cottage on Craigslist, Freecycle or Ebay. Better now than at the last minute. I am currently writing the blurbs and taking pictures so that the posts will be ready to go when we are.

I think it will be interesting to see what our current 700sf apartment looks like with only as much as we will be taking with us into the cottage. What few things do we really need?

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Electrical complete

While working on the electrical system, I wrote a number on each wire and kept detailed notes about where each wire started and ended, as well as any details about junction boxes. In the first picture, you can see the start of this list and some of the rough wiring.

In this one, where the wiring is complete, you can see how much the list grew.

Finally, we hooked up a 30 amp recepticale and and tied it into a 110 extension cord. When we plugged it in, we tested all the outlets and switches and everything worked!

What I didn't know is that it might have better to hookup the switches and outlets after finishing the inside walls. Now we'll have to tape them. But it did give me great satisfaction to have it all done.

Electrical Map:

(click for larger version)

Up next is windows.

Friday, June 26, 2009

House wrap

Just wanted to post a few pics showing we finished the house wrap. The first is of Sultan and I working on the second pass.

House wrap does several nifty things for a home. First, it helps prevent drafts. But it also helps with moisture problems because water passes only one direction through it. So it is difficult for water on the outside to come in, and any water on the inside tends to wick out.

Here we are finished.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009


Some things just take longer than you think they will. I've been working on the electrical system for our tiny house (so we should have a tiny electrical system, right?) for a few days now, and it is still not done. Part of the time was spent consulting with my friend Mike, who is an electrician. We started by creating a list of our electrical needs.

From this list we find that we can do pretty well with just 15 Amps (a good heavy duty extension cord). But we are wiring it for 30 Amp capacity. We will still be able to plug into a standard outlet, but we could take advantage of a 30 Amp outlet too. Once we had the list, we made map of wires, outlets, lights, switches and the circuit breaker box and junction boxes. Then I got to work.

Certainly, drilling holes, running wire and connecting up the circuit breaker box took a long time, but one of the biggest time drains was going to the store.

I'd get moving along and realize I need a certain kind of connector, or I'd run out of wire. I never tried to figure out how much wire I'd need. I assumed the leftover roll of romex 14 gauge wire that we got for free was enough. When it wasn't, I bought another 50 feet. Then another. But it does make sense. The trailer is 18 feet long and the wires go up and down and from this light switch, to that light...

Anyway. I have completed what my friend Mike calls the "rough wiring". I still need to skin the wires and hookup the switches and outlets. The light fixtures will come a bit later.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Some tips

Lesson learned: don't try and save money by purchasing cheap screws or bits. Cheap screws have a relatively high rate of loss due to malformation, and they strip, bend and even break. If they strip and you can't get then in, you will probably have a hard time getting them out too. Then you've wasted all sorts of time, not to mention all the junk screws you tossed out. Cheap bits break, and then you have to go buy a new one. More time and money gone.

So it's often best to just get good stuff to start with. We've found that torx (also called star) head screws stay on the bit, and so don't strip, far, far better than either box or Philips (cross). The problem is, they are harder to find. A lumber yard we go to carries them, but some of the big stores don't. We've also found that screws that self drill are supper cool. You can identify these because they have a notched tip.

Next tip: guess how many times I would have to run up and down this ladder to put 1 screw every 6 (along seems) to 12 ("in the field") inches through the plywood and into the studs?

My knees would really not like me and it would take forever. Solution:

Setting up the saw horses with 2x6s (left over from the trailer deck) for a scaffold floor took maybe ten minutes. It probably saved me an hour and lots of knee pain.


Sheathing is done.

As always, there are more pics here.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009


We had our friend Mike over to help us get started on sheathing. Below are a few take-aways.

First, we worked from left to right. Getting the first sheet squared up is important since all the rest butt right up to it. Second, this is a heck of a lot easier with two (or three) people than it would be with one. The third one we didn't realize before when we were doing framing: 16 times 3 = 48.

Houses use 16 inch centers (there is 16 inches between the center of one stud to the center of the next) which means that when you put sheathing up, you cover 3 studs with one sheet and have little waste. The pans we got have odd sizes between studs, but in some places it would add up to 48 inches (which is the width of a 4' x 8' sheet of plywood). Since our trailer was a different size, and since we added 2 windows, and since our floor plan was different, we modified our framing without knowing in advance that we could set up our framing to minimize waste by making sure we have a stud every 48 inches.

For a odd shape like the wheel well, we traced it on sheet of paper to make a pattern, then carefully measured where the pattern needed to go, relative to the edge of the plywood. After marking the wood, the cut was easy with a jig saw.

In this picture we aren't quite done with the sheathing, but the house is taking shape.

In the next post, we'll finish the sheathing and cut out the windows.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

A lofty project

To the left, I've added a link to a research paper I recently wrote on how this tiny house addresses issues / concerns of volatile organic compounds, carbon foot print and sustainability. It references U.S. Census data, Department of Energy data, and other academic sources, so it might be a bit dense. But, it has some terrific information for folks that want to talk up tiny houses.

As for the rest of this post, I just wanted to post a few pics of the loft area that Arlene has been working on over the last week or two.

In the pic above you can see the framing for the loft floor for the storage area. You can also see the porch post, which is about the only work I contributed over the last two weeks.

We have double blocks between the rafters/joists so that we have something to attach siding too on both the inside and out. The tongue and groove will go all the way the edge.

The next step is the sheathing. We'll put a post up on that in a day or so.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Hello again!
Arlene has been doing most of the work on our tiny house for the past couple weeks as I finished off school (my undergraduate degree). With that done, I'll be spending a great deal of time over the next few weeks on our project.

Today's post is about bolts. If you've been following us, you saw us work on the trailer and the floor a while back. If not, this link brings up the relevant posts:

At the time, I didn't take a picture (or a not a decent one) of the underside to show the bolts. There isn't much to see really. I just bolted through the decking into the floor frame (made of 2x4's) with 3 inch lag bolts. And as I mentioned in one of the earlier posts, since our floor frame is thicker towards the back of the trailer, I used longer bolts back there.

We also probably used more bolts than the plans called for. This was due to paranoia on my part. I kept having visions of loosing my house while on the road. In fact, all along I had planned to also bolt through the wall base board, through the floor, floor framing and connect it to the steel of the trailer. Otherwise, what we'd have is the floor frame bolted to the trailer decking, the floor nailed to the floor frame, and then the walls nailed (screwed, actually) to floor and floor frame. I wanted a direct connection from my walls to the steel of the trailer.

You can buy long, 1/2 inch think, threaded rods at most good hardware stores. I got 2 of them, with washers and nuts and a four small steel plates. Now our trailer is a utility trailer and has slots along the sides, front and back that are there so you could put 2x4s into them to make a wooden rail around the trailer. In the photo below, you can see two of these. One has my bolt through it, and the one further back does not.

The steel plate on the bottom (photo above) has a longish slot in it that allows you move the plate to best fit your application. I found this handy as not all of the holes ended up perfectly where I planned them.

And this brings me to holes and drills. Where the floor frame is thickest, there is a bit over 8 inches from the top of the wall frame base to the bottom of the floor frame. Add to that the depth of the 2x4-fence holder on the trailer and you have about 11 inches that is not perfectly vertical. So if you do this sort of thing, you have to be aware that there might be a slight angle you have to introduce. In this case, it was easiest to drill the hole from the bottom up, with a spotter watching the angle of my extra extra long 5/8's inch wood boar drill bit.

Finally, I cut a short 2x4 block, drilled a 3/4 inch hole in it (for wiggle room), and stuffed into the 2x4-fence holder. This made that bottom plate you see in the pic fit without moving around.

Now our walls are fully attached to the steel of the trailer and I'm feeling more secure.

Friday, June 12, 2009

What We've Learned So Far

As we look back, we could have saved both time and money if we'd have done a few things differently. Well, now we know. Hopefully this information will be of use to you:

All trailers are not created equal.
We bought the size we wanted but never gave any thought to the color. We have a ‘midnight blue’ trailer… but we will have dark green trim on the windows with redwood siding. Though not a really big deal, this multi-color combination is not one we would have chosen on purpose. I have sanded the trailer wheel wells and they will be painted to match the window trim later. When parked, the trailer tongue will either be covered by a small deck or will be surrounded by a low fence so it won't be noticeable. When we're traveling (not often), people will be looking at the tiny home on wheels, not the trailer tongue.

Make sure to buy windows with tempered glass.
The plans we bought didn’t mention this. We also haven’t seen it mentioned on anyone’s blog about building a tiny mobile house. Jeff happened across the fact that California law requires tempered glass in vehicles. Many other states probably require it too. Check into the requirements near you before you order windows.

Your construction plans will need to be tweaked… no matter what.
Trailers come in all different sizes (and often haven’t been built to be level or perfectly square) so any plans you buy will need to be adjusted. We bought a set of construction plans that cost us $1000 although we had seen very similar plans to these in a book called ‘Yard & Garden Structures: 74 Easy-To-Build Designs' c2001, page 64 (though you'll need to call them to get this set, you can find others on that cost only $45 for the 'study set'. The reason that we bought the more expensive set was that we had thought that they'd have some special information that we'd need. Well, they did give us some information about bolting the foundation to the trailer but we would have done that anyway and because tiny house bloggers/builders show construction pictures, and will answer questions, we could have gotten any other information that way. Find out exactly what the plans do, or don't, include before you buy. Most plans for a tiny sized house (sometimes referred to as a garden shed) don't come with utility plans and some come with roof plans but some don't (remember to watch your height if you're building on a trailer). Shop around, stay flexible and know what you'll get before you buy.

Shop around for your materials.
Home Depot was willing to give us a contractor’s discount of about 10% because we asked for a bid from them for over $2500 worth of materials. We didn’t buy all of our materials at the same time (because of a limited build space and the total cost of materials) and stopped using them because availability/delivery was promised in 2 weeks but it took almost 6 for our first order. This delay impacted our building schedule. Also, their delivery service either can’t get the address correct or won’t deliver at the agreed upon/promised time. This made life a bit more complicated for us since we were not building full-time. After the second delivery glitch we started to use a local, independently owned home supply/lumber company instead. The service is much better and the prices are actually comparable. Which leads to:

Try to buy as much as you can all at once so that you will pay less for delivery.
We have carted as much of our booty back to our lair by ourselves as possible. We have access to a friend's truck which we can use for materials pickup but it’s not always available at times that are convenient to us. The most common company to head to for a rental truck is always time consuming and a hassle so we really don't want to use them. And my Jetta wasn’t going to be happy trying to move the 20’ lengths of lumber that we wanted for the siding or for as much total lumber as we’d need to build even a tiny home. We've had 3 deliveries for this project at $80 each. That money could have been used for much better purposes than the 1 or 2 mile run from their store to our build space. Either have a gracious friend who owns a truck that you can borrow often, have a place to store your supplies and collect/buy them before hand, or buy all of the supplies you need ahead of time and load them all onto your new trailer.

I'm sure that we'll learn more as this project progresses so we'll be posting more on this topic in the future...

Monday, June 8, 2009

Patience / Less Stress

Many of us feel rushed to do more in a shorter amount of time. We deal with rush hour traffic or long lines at the grocery store but we feel the need to hurry to work or go pickup the kids from school. I think most of us feel rushed so that means that many of us are also impatient.

Since we've started building our cottage there have been multiple lay-offs at work, a close family member is waiting for 'The Call' that will come any day now to say that his organ transplant can take place, and we don’t yet positively have a spot to park our cottage once we get to Seattle. Employment, family health and a move; life is pretty stressful for me right now. Sure I'm doing what I can to help make our move to Seattle a smooth one, but in the other two areas, I can do absolutely nothing but wait.

It seems obvious not to even try to control things that can’t be, but it’s hard not to try sometimes because the effort makes me feel as if I’m working towards something better instead of simply waiting or giving up. It also seems obvious though, that if I think about what’s going on in a different light, that I can lead a calmer existence. I can adapt. If I can accept the fact that I have no control in some circumstances then I can drastically reduce my stress level. This requires patience.

A friend of ours and I discussed this subject by email not too long ago and his suggestions about how to be more patient have been really useful. His key points with my interpretations:

Life is not a race between Point A and Point B. Enjoy the moment. Slow down, look around and think. Stop trying to multi-task and get off of auto-pilot. Work at being more present (enjoying whatever you're working on, listening to what others are telling you instead of thinking about your to-do list, etc). Do things that are important to you, and that make you happy, every day and life will have purpose and satisfaction. Point B then won’t seem so important.

There is no 'right' answer. Don't worry about choosing the 'absolute right choice' because it really doesn't exist. Simply make a choice and feel lucky that you have that power. Some people don't get to choose... In deciding what we want the cottage to look like we sometimes go back and forth over a choice and it's been a bit confusing and frustrating for both Jeff and I. “I thought that we’d agreed on that already.” We need to finish making all building decisions quickly at this point because full-time construction begins this weekend. Nothing at this point will be so important that it could make or break the project. We feel very lucky to have been able to save the money, and to have the time, to build this cottage together. Everything else is frosting on the cake.

Acceptance. Acceptance of a situation or of ourselves. We each have many opportunities and challenges. We make choices and things progress. We can't control these things as much as we'd like to in some cases no matter how hard we try. The fact is that things will turn out how they turn out. Most of the time the results are pleasant but sometimes they won’t end up as we’d have liked them to be. All of this uncertainty makes life really quite interesting when we stop to think about it though...

Slow down, try to enjoy whatever happens as it unfolds and (even if you have no control) things will turn out fine. When you get an unexpected lemon, simply make lemonade. Be more patient and it really will lessen your stress.

Friday, June 5, 2009

Facts About Our Project

We certainly didn’t expect to be asked by the media for interviews when embarking on this project. Well, because I’ve been trying to get the word out so that we find a space to live in our tiny cottage while in Seattle, the media has contacted us. We now have a side bar item titled “Media Inquiries” which (so far) answers these questions:

Why are you building a tiny house to live in?
What does this project mean to you?
Won’t it be too small for you two to live in full-time?
Why do you think it’s important to downsize your possessions?
How do you think this project will change your lives?
What are the facts about your tiny cottage?
What are you looking for?
Have there been any parts of this project that were unexpected?
What would you tell others who see your tiny cottage and want to build one too?

If you have other questions, don’t hesitate to ask. We’ll add our answers as they are asked to the side bar link as well as to this post.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Necessary Chain of Events

It turns out that it was a ‘good thing’ that I had problems with the nail gun this past weekend. I’ll admit that I am impatient to see the cottage form. I get lost in the physical building of it and sometimes I neglect to stop and think about the necessary chain of events. When I went home Sunday night to discuss with Jeff what I’d accomplished over the weekend, I explained my disappointment that I wasn’t as far along as I thought I’d be.

He said that he was actually impressed with my progress and also reminded me we had agreed that the porch should be finished before the loft above it. I will need the loft fully supported before I sit on top of the storage loft in order to screw in the floor boards. Now why didn’t I remember that?

The answer is that I have really wanted to see the sheathing on the bare bones. I wanted to be able to say that I built most of the cottage pretty much alone up to the sheathing and I wanted it to look somewhat like a cottage. (Yes, I had help with the big stuff like flipping the floor framing over, installing the softwood floor, and wall raising but it has felt good to be able to do the other tasks by myself.) Well, the sheathing can’t get attached until the lofts have been added so I’ve been hyper-focused on the lofts.

If you ask Jeff to describe me he’d explain that I put great importance in knowing that I am self-sufficient in many ways, that I’m not usually overwhelmed by any project or dissuaded from doing anything simply because it’s challenging (he’ll give a huge laugh as he says that), that I can sometimes be stubborn, can impose very strict (and sometimes impossible) deadlines on myself and that I’m basically a tomboy though I do have a softer side (I weld but also sew).

Jeff has been really busy finishing up with school. He used to meet me for dinner weeknights at the cottage then he’d study wearing headphones while I’d built but he was getting distracted. He would study less because he wanted to help more with the cottage every other Saturday but then he’d feel really stressed because he’d fallen behind on homework. Sit and do schoolwork or play with tools? He likes to work with tools too so it was a tough choice, but it needed to be done; he began studying elsewhere and made sure to keep up with the schoolwork. He has only another couple of weeks left before he has the summer off and will begin building full-time while I continue to work on it only weeknights and weekends. I really wanted to have the big stuff done by then so that he’d be proud of the work that I’d done though. I know that we need to be ready to move into it in August so I feel a need to keep an eye on the building schedule.

Now, as I temporarily slow down to re-look at the necessary chain of events, I see that other things really need to be done before the sheathing can be attached anyway. We have the redwood siding laid out alongside the cottage. We won’t be able to work on the exterior sheathing without damaging that lumber unless it’s moved first. Of course, that means moving the stack of windows which means moving the worktable which means moving… I’m not looking forward to any of this because then I won’t be doing construction. I like to see progress but things need to get completed in a logical order.

This week so far I have flashed and screwed down the porch, installed the porch support post and finished the loft framing/floor for our storage area. I’ll finish the sleeping loft then will have more room to move some supplies around. I still hope to get the sheathing attached by the 12th though. That’s just how I am

Monday, June 1, 2009

Loft floors

In the past 2 weeks I’ve been very busy though you can’t ‘see’ it since they’ve been little things:

*Made sure that Murphy’s Law didn’t apply in ANY way to our window openings (I unpacked a window and slid it into each opening to make sure that I had framed them correctly). It’d be bad if we sheathed and wrapped the house only to find out that the window opening sizes that were specified by the manufacturer were incorrect or that I'd framed them wrong.

*Made some temporary stairs for our porch since I felt unsafe stepping on a paint can to enter the house.

*Have cut most of the insulation for the top portions of the walls.

*We finalized our floor plans (sizes of the closets, counters and loft sizes / more space in the living area vs space in the kitchen/bathroom). Up until now these were all rough estimates that we were pretty sure we'd be happy with. To be able to stand in the house to see/feel if the areas seemed large enough was very helpful.

*All joists, blocking and flooring for the loft areas have been cut.

*Predrilled the holes for the loft flooring. Screws will be neatly countersunk.

*Bought silicon caulk for use above the wheel wells (we’ve heard this area is prone to water leaks) and for use where the window trim meets the siding, etc.

*Bought a long drill bit and some rods/nuts/washers so that we can more firmly attach the wall framing to the trailer frame before sheathing.

I wanted to be able to show you the completed lofts but my hold up was that our pneumatic nailer wants a vacation. Sure we’re almost finished using it on this project, but it’s really inconvenient and frustrating that it now seems to be jamming more often and is getting quite better at it. Saturday I had about 6 jams and yesterday I had about 8. Only one jam on Saturday required Jeff an hour to clean out using a hammer/nail sink/pliers/dremel tool with a saw blade. The jams come at the most inopportune times, always require that I partially disassemble the gun and also happen often enough to drastically impede my progress. I don’t know of anyone whom I dislike enough to give this tool to after we’re done with it. We certainly won’t be keeping it.

In the next few days I will be building the loft framing, attaching the joists to the wall framing (now using screws!) and then will be installing the loft flooring. I have created the loft framing in sections because I am the only one installing them (Jeff is finishing a research paper, the last of the homework and next week will be studying for finals). Lifting these smaller sections are quite manageable for me. I attach the loft framing section to the tops of the walls, add blocks in between, add on another section of framing, etc.

You can see the larger pictures here I seem to be having technical problems this morning...(yawn)