Tag Archives: tiny house

The Best Worst Idea Ever

Well, we finally reached the point where we couldn’t avoid it any longer. I was not going to have a house floored with OSB, and especially not grubby, ugly OSB with expandable foam insulation smooging out of every seam. The inevitable had arrived. It was time.

We considered a regular hardwood floor, since salvaged lumber is our material of choice; but for one, we didn’t want to overindulge in Mike’s generosity, and for two, we didn’t want the whole house to look like one big barn fest. We needed something to break up all the long, narrow planks and dark patina. I insisted that this was very important to keep our house from looking dark and cramped, and John has given me the power of the Final Decision on all matters of aesthetics.

…we wound up using wood anyway. Of course.

Because, you see, there was this one time that I saw a thing on Pinterest (a bad idea) and showed it casually to my husband (an even worse idea) as one of those ideas that, you know, we might try someday in the quasi-distant future. I should have known that John would say to me, “Why wait? We should totally do this now. Our house is all one big experiment, anyway, and this looks FREAKING SWEET.”

Hello. Welcome to our rational, thoughtful decision making process. We are adults, I promise.

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These are the examples I showed him to introduce the concept of end grain wood tiles. We had already spent several months discussing the possibility of cordwood construction for future sustainable building projects, and we knew we liked that look for flooring, too; but we’d never considered using square cuts and arranging them like regular tile. It also just so happens that since the New York barn back in October, the shop has been saddled with a truckload of 4×6 beams that tend to rot faster than we can use them.

The internet offered surprisingly little information on how best to grout wood tiles, by the way, so like everything else, we blazed our own trail into the wilderness and made a metric butt-ton of mistakes.

Mistake #1: I had the bright idea that we should drywall all the way down to the subfloor before we put in the floors, because I figured that if the grout met up directly with the walls, then I could work neatly enough to create a seam between the wall and floor that did not require trim or baseboard. This was a reasonably successful idea. The less brilliant part of my plan was to get ahead of myself and paint, too, because there’s nothing like half an inch of floor sanding debris to make a beautifully painted interior look like the Arabian Desert threw up in your house.

Mistake #2: Do you ever do that thing where you get so caught up in one detail that you let it rule all of the other details, and it’s not until you’re almost to the end that you realize the first detail was not that important and actually made everything a lot more complicated than it needed to be? Yeah, that thing. John got so hung up on the size of the space under the front door that he was convinced the tiles needed to be well over an inch thick. Our floors could have been much lighter and required a lot less grout, but we learned a valuable lesson there, too.

Anyway, back at the beginning of March, we were so naive and optimistic – you know, like we always are right before we get in over our heads. We estimated that the flooring process would take a week or so. John spent a few evenings chopping beams, and then I stuck them to the subfloor with construction adhesive over the course of two days.

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John took on the terrible task of sanding the entire floor and applying the first generous coat of polyurethane to all the tiles.

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We were already a week into it by the time we even got around to grouting. Some totally reliable source on the internet (yes, that is sarcasm) recommended polyurethane mixed with fine sawdust as an alternative to regular grout, and if there’s one thing the shop has in abundance, it’s sawdust! Though, unsurprisingly, the coarse kind doesn’t work quite the same way.

Also, John discovered that one-size-fits-all latex gloves are a lie.

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We started mixing our coarse sawdust with the remnants of a year-old five-gallon bucket of poly. What could possibly go wrong with our plan?

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The answer is “everything”. It sucked.

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The mixture was noxious and impossible to poke into the gaps between tiles, and we were burning through the polyurethane so fast that this method was already on track to cost us several hundred more dollars than anticipated. It was also going to make sanding a nightmare. I suggested that we could fill the gaps with dry sawdust first and pour the poly over it, which we did by hand for maybe fifteen minutes before John demanded that I give in to my barbaric side and dump the sawdust on the floor all at once.

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I’m sorry, you want me to do what?

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I have to admit that it was actually a really good idea, and broom sweeping the sawdust throughout the whole house took a grand total of three minutes. Even if there is something really wrong with making the biggest mess ever on purpose.

After that, I modified one of my furniture finishing hacks to help apply the polyurethane. We invested in 79 cents’ worth of diner-style mustard squeeze bottles, which did an excellent job filling in all the cracks as cleanly as possible. John was a trooper; he does not love fine detail work the way that I do.

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I wish I could say that that was the end of the story, but it definitely wasn’t. I went through this process twice with polyurethane and then twice more with fiberglass resin. The sanding and filling and re-sanding took us close to four weeks, and I could probably describe the grain on any given tile in our house at the drop of a hat.

It wasn’t until two days ago that I finally applied the last coat of finish, almost seven weeks after we started.

Our mistakes cost us a whole lot of extra moolah in the grouting department. What we saved in free lumber, we made up for in filler. Like I said before, we learned a tremendous lesson on this one; but holy smokes, does that floor look amazing! The grain on each unique tile stands out beautifully, and you can see big, fat flecks of sawdust through the translucent amber grout. It’s really neat.

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I can’t share a photo of the whole floor, though, because that would spoil the big reveal on its way this week…

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Landslide

There are two main reasons for avoiding your blog like the plague, especially when you’re attempting to chronicle such a behemoth undertaking as, say, the building of a house. The first is that nothing is happening – or rather, so little is happening so incrementally that Tolkien himself would be hard pressed to write a scintillating narrative around the week you spent stapling insulation to the ceiling and trying to scrub fiberglass slivers out of your tongue; and the only thing worse than having folks clamor for a blog update (because they’re too nice to straight-up call you a slacker) is the feeling that you’re throwing junk at the wall to see what sticks, and the end result seems to be a sort of chronic, unforgivable dullness.

“Yesterday, we cut drywall. Today, we cut some more drywall. Tomorrow, we will continue to cut drywall…” and on and on, ad nauseam.

The other option is that everything has suddenly started to happen all at once, and your life is such a constant landslide of insanity that it feels like there’s no point in sitting down to write about where the project is at, because it will change again in, oh, about 3 minutes and 18 seconds. Plus there’s that nagging fact that you’re busy working on the house. Every single day and night. Friends? Hobbies? Dates? Parties? I remember those things – vaguely. What I remember more vividly is having lived with some combination of 12 different people in the 8 months since John and I got married, and as much as I love all of them, I really just need my own kitchen and a cast iron skillet that doesn’t always taste like soap. So we work, and we sleep, and then we work some more.

Hey, I never said they were particularly good reasons, but it happens.

On the flip side of things, when I visited this blog to see where in the timeline I needed to pick up my narration, my jaw dropped. The woodstove? Was that really the last development I took the time to mention? Embarrassing. I guess I could feign alien abduction, I could play the chronic illness card, I could point out that feeding a blacksmith is practically a full time job and having a roommate who’s newly addicted to musical theatre causes amnesic brain damage; but really, I just let one of my favorite activities slide through the cracks, and I’m sorry. I will do my best to catch up.

We did spend several days putting up insulation, which was a really bad idea without a respirator. Working with your face tilted up toward the ceiling, combined with that irritating biological compulsion to breathe, will leave a fine layer of itchy slivers all over your mouth the inside of . You’ll cough and feel like you’re suffocating for days. I don’t recommend it. However, if you have to insulate in a tiny space during the dead of a disgusting winter, what I do recommend is working with someone who makes you laugh.

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Also, naps. They are good for you.

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And strange friends, like James, to keep you from taking your life too seriously.

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We were hugely blessed by the donation of some free insulation by Tom, a dear friend and coworker. In fact, across the board, the support we’ve had from our friends and family cannot possibly be overstated! When it came time to drywall, which is the bane of every home builder’s existence and with which we had desperately little practice, Wyatt brought his many years of contracting experience to the table without batting an eyelash. John’s older brother, Jake, also volunteered an incredible amount of time during the drywalling stage, which even included coming straight to the house from karate class.

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Drywall was a huge turning point in making our weird little shack look like a home on the inside. Talk about a morale booster!

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The psychological trauma of drywall mudding was not captured on film. To be honest, we did a very poor job, both for lack of experience and lack of time; and that was one of several compromises we made in an attempt to keep perfection from being the enemy of good. Our walls are a little lumpy and a little bumpy, and from certain angles, it’s all too easy to pinpoint the truly awful spots. For a little while, that made me feel bad. I don’t like doing substandard work. Neither does John.

Then it occurred to me that WE ARE BUILDING OUR OWN HOUSE. We’re on track to own our first home for under $10,000 before either of us turns 25. And whose living space is picture perfect, anyway? That’s the point – it’s for living in!

Anyway, after the abject misery that was drywall mudding, Jake and his wonderful fiancée, Melanie, helped us to prime the walls and ceiling.

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I had originally planned to leave the entire house a delicate shade of off-white. It’s a popular color for tiny house interiors, because the increased reflection helps to maximize natural light and make small spaces look bigger. John was not on board, but I was persistent. He complained that he wouldn’t be allowed to breathe inside, much less touch anything; but again, I was firm.

Until the first time his shoulder bumped a wall as he was climbing to the loft, and a dirty smudge followed his progress like a black eye on my beautiful ivory paint. I relented immediately. We compromised on an attractive shade of blue for the walls, called Thundering Clouds, and decided to leave the ceiling white to make good use of all our ambient natural light.

And that, however briefly, concludes the major milestones of January and February. Much of the last month has been focused on our floor, which looks frankly awesome, but which also took a great deal more time and money than we expected, because – like most things – we had no idea what we were doing. It all worked out in the end, though, and we love it. Seriously. Love it.

For now, I will leave you with a glimpse of that charming madness:

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…as well as a fervent promise to write the next chapter of our story very, very soon. We’re in the home stretch now, folks. Stick with us – it’s going to be a wild ride!

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The Problem of Poop

You should see the looks on people’s faces when they ask us about our utilities and we eventually get around to explaining that, no, we’re not building to hook up to any kind of a septic system. The plumbing is all self-contained within the house, and we’re just not interested in having to deal with blackwater disposal. The wheels start to turn… the brows begin to furrow… and then:

“So, um, are you going to have a toilet? How does that work, exactly?”

Is there just a hole in the bathroom floor? Or a bucket lined with Walmart bags? Will your turds be carried majestically away by trained pigeons and deposited on some unsuspecting farmer’s manure heap before they’ve even begun to smell?

Well, that last one would be kind of impressive, but no.

There is a surprisingly wide range of bathroom accommodations for tiny homes, if you choose to include one at all. Some people prefer to save space inside by moving their toilet facilities to an outhouse, like John Kamman and Grace Brogan, who live in a yurt in northern Minnesota. You know, where it gets to be thirty below during the winter, and there’s frost on the toilet seat. That you have to walk OUTSIDE to reach. Oh, and you have to get up at 3am to stoke the 24/7 fire that keeps your house from becoming your icy tomb. Commendable, sure – I applaud them – but no thanks.

Others prefer to forego no modern luxury and put a regular toilet (albeit usually a low-flow) in a tiny house, which works fine if you’re parking it someplace where you can hook up to the grid for water and septic. Similarly, some choose to use a chemical RV toilet and dispose of the waste at designated parks.

Both John and I have always been slightly uneasy at the thought of flushing away nearly two gallons of potable water with every bathroom transaction while there are people on this planet dying of thirst. Neither of us professes to be perfectly energy- or resource-conscious; there are a few probably unnecessary lights on in the house at the moment, my laptop is plugged in, and John is playing computer games with his brother using the television as a big monitor. The amount of water wasted in conventional toilets just happens not to sit well with either of us, so we decided to do something about it in our own home.

One of the most common alternatives is a composting toilet. These run the gamut from a five gallon bucket filled with sawdust (which we actually considered, given that we work in a woodshop; but the sawdust is supposed to be damp and fresh, not kiln-dried) to a much fancier, urine-separating model like the ones made by Nature’s Head. The price range is typically $1,000 or more, but what we dislike most about composting toilets is that they require a fan to be running constantly in the ventilation system, unless you’re cool with your house smelling like human waste in varying states of decomposition. They can be really great if you’re already a hardcore composter and like to use really, really organic fertilizer on your garden, but none of them struck our fancy. You can read more in The Humanure Handbook if you’re interested in the science of composting toilets.

We very nearly decided to go with an incinerating toilet, instead, which John claims was a decision based on economics and efficiency – and not on his love of lighting things on fire. In the Incinolet, a liner is placed in the bowl before each use, which then drops into a sealed compartment in the bottom of the unit and is, well, incinerated. Incinolet boasts extreme cleanliness, since waste never comes into contact with the toilet bowl and cleaning involves only emptying a small amount of ash into the garbage. The height stipulations for your ventilation are really strict, though, and if you fail to vent less than a certain distance above the roof, any small change in the breeze can easily fill your home with the smell of burning feces. The going price starts just under $2,000.

John and I had prepared ourselves to shell out an enormous amount of money for an Incinolet, until the one time that wasting an inordinate amount of time on Pinterest finally did me some good. I happened to scroll past a pin captioned, “The Toilet That Will Change the World!”

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I read that the Laveo by Dry Flush uses no water, no harsh chemicals, and next to no electricity. It was developed for use in areas with very little access to water or power, and it only needs to be charged (via your standard electrical outlet) once every three months or about 300 flushes. Upon flushing, the bowl collapses and vacuum-seals the liner, then drops it into the bottom compartment. No squick, no smell. The disappointing factor is that the Dry Flush takes huge strides in saving water and electricity, then makes you put your poop into a plastic bag and throw it in the landfill. However! The developers promise to be hard at work making a biodegradable, compostable bowl liner, which would be just about the awesomest thing ever.

We’ve been weighing toilet options for almost a year, at this point, and John and I both feel really good about the Dry Flush. The unit itself is just $420 (and available from Home Depot, which offers free shipping), and though the cartridges are absurdly expensive at $1 per flush, we’re really enthusiastic about supporting a fledgling business that’s doing such an awesome thing.

There’s also the fact that we currently spend 10-15 hours at the shop every day except Sunday, anyway, which significantly minimizes the number of opportunities to use our toilet at home. Hopefully, by the time we make it back to Michigan, biodegradable bowl liner cartridges will grow on trees – or at least cost less than $55 per refill.

And there you have it! A detailed answer to the question everyone wonders about, but nobody really wants to ask.

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Take Peace!

There are many long, rambling, half-finished posts in my queue, stuffed to the gills with reasons why our tiny house is not finished. They’re not bad reasons; but the truth is simply that all those little responsibilities here and there which have added up to weeks and months of lost time are much the same as everyone else’s, and all we can do now is press forward. (After all, it is immeasurably good fortune that we have the strength to get out of bed every morning and commit to participating joyfully in our busy lives!)

We’ve accomplished a lot, despite our tendency to focus on all the things we’re not getting done. When we were unable to find a source of reclaimed wood siding, we decided to use corrugated tin from the roof of a barn we took down in New York over Halloween weekend. It works, and it gives our house a delightfully shabby chic sort of attitude. John was anxious that it would look too ramshackle; but to his surprise, I’m extremely fond of it.

It’s thrifty, it’s rustic, and it gets the job done. And, you know, it was free.

What’s better than that?

John did all of the electrical work with some helpful advice from his brother, Mike, and from Terry, the auto mechanic (and former electrician, apparently) who works next-door to the shop. He’s also run all of the PEX pipes we’ll need for the kitchen sink, bathroom sink, and shower. We built the loft above the bathroom, which John tested for structural stability in the best way he could:

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He and Wyatt also designed our excellent staircase and all the storage therein:

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We’ve framed the windows on the outside, though unfortunately, it began to rain before I had a chance to coat them with Penofin, the penetrating oil finish we use at the shop for outdoor and patio furniture. They’ve been damp and impossible to seal ever since. Other little improvements include the hand forged brackets John made to support the cantilevered end of our kitchen, reclaimed douglas fir flooring in the loft, and some much-needed finishing elements on the roof. I’m hoping for one last sunny day before this wetness turns into the dead of winter, so that I can wander around with my camera and capture some of those little details.

Today, with the shop’s Christmas rush behind us, we resolved to work only on the tiny house. Since the weather has made it nearly impossible to do much more work outside, John and I decided that it would be best to set up our tiny woodburning stove to heat the inside and make it more comfortable for the immense task of finishing the interior. We took a trip to Lowe’s and immediately balked at the $350 price tag on a standard through-the-wall stovepipe kit. Luckily, it turns out that the do-it-yourself folks can put together the same mechanism with $150 worth of individual parts, then paint them all that lovely matte black with a $3 can of high-heat enamel. I probably don’t need to elaborate on which option we chose.

Our little woodstove, which we bought for a hundred bucks on Craigslist, has a great, gusty draft; but we noticed that it didn’t retain heat well, so John broke an extra fire brick into small pieces to line the bottom, which has done wonders for its efficiency. Within minutes of finishing the pipe construction, we had filled it to capacity with two small chunks of two-by-four, and that tiny house was cooking.

People, we don’t even have a front door yet. Our doorway is covered with nothing but a tarp, and the inside of the house was still hotter than two cats fighting in a wool sock. It was incredible. We peeked outside to see the loveliest sight:

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Woodsmoke, rising gently from our patchwork chimney on a wet and chilly day.

The scene inside was even more lovely, in spite of the unfinished walls and bulging foam insulation, as a little fire popped and leapt in the stove. Our first fire, in our first house, on the first Christmas Eve of our marriage.

I cannot leave you with anything more profound, on this most blessed of nights, than the famous letter written by Fra Giovanni Giocondo to a beloved friend on Christmas Eve, 1513. It so perfectly encompasses all the joy and trial of this adventure!

I am your friend and my love for you goes deep. There is nothing I can give you which you have not got, but there is much, very much, that, while I cannot give it, you can take.

No heaven can come to us unless our hearts find rest in today. Take heaven!

No peace lies in the future which is not hidden in this present little instant. Take peace!

The gloom of the world is but a shadow. Behind it, yet within our reach is joy. There is radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see – and to see we have only to look. I beseech you to look!

Life is so generous a giver, but we, judging its gifts by the covering, cast them away as ugly, or heavy or hard. Remove the covering and you will find beneath it a living splendor, woven of love, by wisdom, with power.

Welcome it, grasp it, touch the angel’s hand that brings it to you. Everything we call a trial, a sorrow, or a duty, believe me, that angel’s hand is there, the gift is there, and the wonder of an overshadowing presence. Our joys, too, be not content with them as joys. They, too, conceal diviner gifts.

Life is so full of meaning and purpose, so full of beauty – beneath its covering – that you will find earth but cloaks your heaven.

Courage, then, to claim it, that is all. But courage you have, and the knowledge that we are pilgrims together, wending through unknown country, home.

And so, at this time, I greet you. Not quite as the world sends greetings, but with profound esteem and with the prayer that for you, now and forever, the day breaks, and the shadows flee away.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.

And in all things, take peace!

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