Build: Day Four

Today featured SO MANY WALLS! Today was also the first day I actually got to assist in the honest-to-god framing: the last few days I’ve sort of shown up and been like, “Oh, huh! Some walls/a floor!”. It was pretty educational! Primary lessons of the day were as follows: 1) building a wall is basically like building a big slatted box. It’s pretty much the same idea as building a raised garden bed, except in some ways, it’s less complex. 2) Framing a wall involves a lot of cutting boards exactly to size and squeezing them together to form the interior box/es: a lot of what’s holding the wall up is the rest of the wall. We nailed everything together, of course, but even without nails, most of our wall framing would have held together just by physics: that’s how squeezed together almost everything was!

I got to the site maybe 45 minutes later than Jeff did, as I had dogs to walk: by the time I got there, the back wall was up!DSC00009Please note the freaking ginormous window on that back wall (it’s 4’x4′): that’s my egress window in case my kitchen blows up or something. It’s going to let so much light in, and it’s going to create a great crossbreeze with the bay window in the front. There is one major problem, which is that that’s going to be the future bathroom (if you are visualizing, the shower is going to be in the left corner there). The plans, as it stand, have the toilet basically directly in front of the egress window, with a tiny sink and the utility stack to the right. I am gently but firmly trying to get Jeff to move that somehow, because a) that’s going to involve a lot of curtain raising and lowering and/or a lot of accidental public nudity and b) if I am trying to get lots of light and crossbreeze, the bathroom door will have to be open, and that means that when you walk in the front door, the house’s focal point will basically be a toilet. Not awesome.

Anyway, next, we framed the third wall (on the right in the picture below), and that’s something I got to help with.


It went amazingly fast! We laid the frame out right there on the bed of the trailer and nailed it together (Jeff has an enormous, hard core air-powered nail gun that has its own compressor, which meant that it took about three minutes to nail it all together). Then we measured out where we wanted the studs to go, squeezed them in, nailed them in. Then we built a box for the window that went between two studs: the sides were 2x4s, just like the studs, and the top and bottom were thicker to support the weight of the window. Squeezed that in, nailed it, then raised the whole thing up and attached it to the lower support that Jeff had already bolted into the fender/the trailer deck. Then we nailed it to the back wall, and boom! a new wall had gone up. INCREDIBLY satisfying, and it took maybe an hour?

Anyway, now we come to the part of the story where Mistakes Were Made, so let’s just have a brief lacuna to look at Construction Pit Bull, who had to be tethered during the wall-building part of the morning (so she didn’t get squashed) but had a great time supervising from Ft. Nellie anyway.


[That Noz2Noz collapsible fabric crate is seriously one of the greatest things I have ever purchased. Totally worth the money even if you don’t win it for $20 on ebay like I did]

So. Go look at the picture above the one of Nellie. Look specifically at the corners where the three walls intersect. See how the back wall and the wall on the right intersect? Now look at the wall on the left (the first one Jeff built) and the back wall. NOT IDENTICAL. I wish I could say that I noticed that the left wall was like eight inches higher than the other walls and had assumed that it was deliberately sloping to let off rain water or something (note: the roof IS going to slope a bit, but in the other direction, so towards the front). The truth is, though, that I was so excited about Framing! My! Wall! that I hadn’t even noticed. Jeff had been freaking out about it for 36 hours, though (quietly. to himself. he is not a talker). It was just a calculation error, and since it was the first wall, he didn’t catch it until the others went up. But it was a problem, because the extra height of the too-big wall made the house too tall to safely travel (there’s a legal max height of 13’6″ from the ground, so you can get through tunnels, etc.), and that meant I couldn’t just work it into the design or build the other wall up or something. And of course taking it down was easier said than done, as it was by this point built into the rest of the house.

Now, this is where I am glad I had Jeff: I know he made the error, but honestly, if it had just been me, I totally would have done something just as stupid. However, if it had been just me, I would have been like, “Welp, everything needs to come down so I can fix it, so let’s do that and then I am going to drink Scotch for three days and feel sorry for myself.” Not Jeff. Jeff looked at the too-big wall, measured how too-big it was, and then decided that he was just going to cut the wall off at the ankles and then nail it back into the frame. This idea sounded crazy to me. But, here’s how it went down in pictures.

See those cuts in the studs at the bottom of the wall? Yep! We were going to cut them off and then just let the wall fall straight down, kind of like when you get a row of blocks in Tetris.

Here’s Jeff cutting them off with his crazy saw that saws through nails. Please note how the studs to the right of Jeff are just stone cold HANGING IN SPACE.

He cut the studs that were over the trailer fender all the way first: he cut the last one, thinking that he would slowly lower the section down, but the whole wall immediately went KERTHUMP and fell straight down (Tetris-style): just like he thought, but a little prematurely. Please note how the top support now looks like a pagoda.

After he re-nailed/re-bolted the studs to their new position, he repeated the same kind of ankle-chopping on the other side of the wall (the side that hit the actual trailer deck). And wouldn’t you know it? That side KERTHUMPED, the pagoda board unbent, and voila, we had three walls that intersected perfectly at the corners. A couple of nails later and you never would have known that the wall had been shrinky-dinked! It was extremely awesome, and took like 45 minutes.


Anyway, after that it all went very smoothly. We added beams to the top edge (extra support) and put a large joist between the left and right walls…

…built a little frame for the top-front (same as the wall: built a box, ran studs between the top and bottom of the box)…

…and nailed it up. Yay!

So if you can visualize this, everything above that big center joist is going to be the sleeping loft; the ceiling for the kitchen and bathroom will be below the center joist (or rather, kind of in the middle of the joist, but that’s the general idea.) This is where I had my first quiet freakout about size (I think if you’re building a tiny house, you’re allowed one or two). The kitchen/bathroom ceilings are going to be LOW (in what is otherwise going to be a high-ceiling’ed and open-feeling space), mostly to accommodate a comfortable loft. When I was designing the thing on paper, I put the kitchen/bath ceiling at 6’6; on paper, that seemed reasonable, but it’s quite a different thing to be standing in the space and thinking, “Holy shit, that’s only a foot above my actual head.” So I freaked out for a second, until I got myself together and realized that actually, it was going to be fine. It was actually a little taller than the galley kitchen on my ex’s family’s boat, and that felt cozy but not impossible, the appliances and the storage cabinets (pantry, etc) were going to be the major thing under the short ceiling (the counter space extends out from under the loft, and also, that I am actually a short little 5’6 person, and I am the one this house is for and if the Jolly Green Giant came in and felt a little claustrophobic getting ice out of the fridge, well, too damn bad. So then I felt better. And having a loft that doesn’t feel like a coffin is going to make it allllll worth it.

So here’s what we have at the end of the day!

The whole back section of the house is framed out successfully, including all the spots for windows (seven windows so far!) That’s the loft (which still needs to be internally framed), the bathroom and the kitchen. The front of the house (the rest of the floor, as currently framed out) is the living area, and then you will take a few steps up (over the support bar in front of the trailer) and walk into the bay window ‘room’, which will extend over the hitch (this is the ‘library’/’solarium’/’other grandiose name’, with its built in bookshelves below the bay window and probably this chair hanging from the ceiling). Can you kind of see it a little bit? It doesn’t quite look like a house yet, but it’s beginning to come together!

The next thing to do is to frame out the front, of course, but I am not sure when that’s going to happen, because GRIM NEWS.

the weather

I live in the desert. Except for briefly during the monsoon season, you never see four day rainstorms! It’s already sprinkling now, and tomorrow’s supposed to be a doozy, involving Actual Thunder and Actual Lightning. Poor exposed tiny house! I am glad I painted the subfloor. So anyway, we’ll see what happens between now and Monday. Watch, I’ll get there and it’ll turn out that Jeff framed out the whole front end by himself in the middle of a lightning storm. And he probably will have insulated the whole thing with foam, the jerk.


Mom, Jeff and I just did our big monetary breakdown today (which we’re going to do once a week), which I thought I would share with you guys:

Trailer, tax, delivery: $5063.79
Permanent title/license fee: $159
Padlock to lock generator to trailer while it’s at the build site: $15.90
Generator rental (for a month, including tax): $241.91

Wood, nails, building stuff: $777.13
Labor (Jeff: $30/hr.): $720

2 gallons of expensive fancy floor paint, metric ton of painting supplies: $86.16

Total: $7063.89.¬† If you don’t factor in the trailer cost, which I think is one of the most variable aspects of the project*, that’s about two grand for a house that’s a little less than 1/2 framed. See also: two months of rent in my shared apartment in Santa Monica, 1.5 months of rent in my way-too-large-and-expensive house in Richmond.

*I love my trailer and am very very glad to have gotten something new and large and comparatively fancy, but lots of people start a tiny house by ripping down an old camper shell, or by buying a used trailer, or by buying a 16 ft utility trailer for $1000 or so. Admittedly, they usually spend a bunch of money retrofitting their trailer, buying new brakes and tires and lights, reworking the electrical, etc. But it can be an area of cost savings, if you’re thinking about doing this yourself. I got a good deal on my trailer, but the initial outlay was still at the higher end of the spectrum.

We’ve used 77 24-ft. boards so far (give or take: there are a bunch of short scraps left over that will eventually be turned into something else). Not counting the ply (which was too complicated to calculate) and assuming an average-sized Douglas fir (the bulk of the wood we’ve been using), if I did the math right, I think we’ve used about 4/5ths of a tree. Thanks, tree.


Build: Day One and Two


Monday was the first day of the build, and build we did! Or rather, build Jeff did: I’m working M/Th/Sat this week. But he and my mom supervised the delivery of New! Trailer! at the build site, which went in without a hitch. At least, getting it there went without a hitch: when Mom went in to make sure she was directing the trailer delivery guy to the right place, the feed store guy told her that oh, by the way, he’d changed the space he’d initially told us we were going to get and was putting us way in the back. He made it sound like a great thing, since there was a separate fence we could shut and lock at night, more room, blah blah blah, and that was all well and good until he mentioned the one tiny little detail that THERE WAS NO POWER. Yep! No electrical hookups, and we are BUILDING A HOUSE (in a non-Amish way). And when Mom mentioned the usefulness of electricity in BUILDING A HOUSE and tried to get him to put us in the space he’d initially set up, he totally dug in his heels and refused, because all of the sudden, hey, maybe his insurance doesn’t cover it and he doesn’t want to be responsible and blee bling bloo (nearly all of the guys who work at the site are fabulous and I love them: this one guy who was on that day is the exception). Anyway, after some frantic calls back and forth between my mom and Jeff and me at work, the trailer ended up going to the power-free back lot (which is where they store their hay).

DSC09958The trailer in its new habitat
DSC09949So, there’s no power, but there is water! And by water, I mean a random utility sink propped up on concrete blocks and hooked directly into the main waterline. Stay classy!
DSC09977The sink contained many confused lizards that I had to rescue before I tried out the tap.

I, in the meantime, did one of those things you never think you’re going to do until you’re in the middle of doing it: I rented a portable generator.

Why yes, that is a large generator in the back of a Scion xa. The Scion xa can also fit four (4) taiko drums, a queen-sized mattress set, three dogs/two cats, and all the things one might need for a year in Canada (not at the same time). BEST CAR!

I knew nothing about generators before up and renting one for the month, and I still know very little. They are loud, they run on gas, they start up like a lawnmower, the one I got is apparently the good kind, and in southern AZ, they apparently cost $228/month plus tax to rent. The more you know! Jeff primarily needs it for his skillsaw: the rest of his stuff is generally cordless, and that’s going to solve our power needs (plus, Jeff is going to try to do as many of the cuts for the day as possible at his own house and just bring them down). Since it was only $36 bucks a month to rent the spot at the feed store, since I didn’t have a backup plan and since it would have cost money to hire somebody to move the trailer again, it seemed like the whole generator business was worth it. But that dude’s on my shit list, I’ll tell you what.

Anyway, then I went back to work, got home, went over to Jeff’s to see how things had gone (he lives next door) and found out that in the four hours I spent at work that afternoon, Jeff had BUILT AND INSULATED THE ENTIRE FLOOR. He’d just cut all the wood with a handsaw, no big deal. BEST CONTRACTOR.

DSC09963So just for the construction-minded among you, here’s how it was put together: first, he put flashing [PS: don’t do a google image search for ‘floor flashing’–you’ll get gross pictures of Courtney Stodden] and a vapor barrier over the wood deck of the trailer, then he did a grid of 2x4s and 1x2s all across the bed of the trailer (which sounds complicated, but if you’ve ever seen a slatted Ikea bed, it basically looks like that: big center support, slats going out on both sides). That’s the bottom layer of the little stack you see in this picture (sorry I don’t have in-progress shots)
DSC09962Jeff bolted the wood frame into the base of the trailer, using the brackets that came welded onto the trailer itself: we’re also going to weld some long vertical supports to the trailer frame and when we do the walls, we’ll build those vertical supports right in (which means the trailer really is integral to the construction of the house: the house isn’t just sitting on top of it). There are crazy heavy welded wire tie-downs built into the bottom of the trailer, and if I connect those to a concrete pad when I park the house, that house is not going anywhere in inclimate weather: it’s much sturdier than a mobile home, which basically just sits on the ground, and in some cases, it’s going to be sturdier than the kind of normal stick-built house that just rests on its foundation. In this case, there’s no real structural separation between the foundation and the house.Anyway, then he insulated the floor with foam that had been lined on both sides with a reflective barrier (which is going to help both with moisture and with insulation.) It looks like this (this is just a scrap that was laying around):

The insulation thing has really been a thorn in my side: I am trying to go as low VOC as possible with this thing, and I was prepared to make insulation kind of my hill to die on. You see, I really wanted to do denim insulation: the R-value is good, it is recycled and not full of horrifying chemicals, and you can just roll it on like fiberglass without worrying about the shards getting in your skin and lungs (it’s just jeans). Jeff really wanted to use rigid foam board: he pointed out that it was narrower (space saving!), had a comparable R-value (true), was cheaper (definitely true), and that he knew how to install it (fair): he also sort of subtly implied that he thought the denim was hippie nonsense (which, yes, but it is also totally great by lots of different practical metrics.) I countered with the fact that I had already bought some denim insulation on Craigslist (I did: not enough, but it’s a sizeable amount), and by god we were gonna use it. And then he just up and insulated the floor using the stuff he wanted to use in the first place. WORST CONTRACTOR! (just kidding, he really is the best). I am still holding out for denim in the walls, but I am grudgingly beginning to admit that there may be a place for this foam business in the floor and ceiling. AND we are using this crazy composite roll-out material on the roof instead of the nice, friendly, sounds-good-in-the-rain tin I wanted because of the way the roof is sloping. ALREADY I AM SELLING OUT!

Oh, right, back to the floor. After the insulation, he did the top layer, which in my case is a nice, marine-grade plywood (also good for keeping water out). It’s all nailed together, kind of like a very sturdy wooden sandwich. We’ve just put the floor in over the deck: we’re also going to extend it up and over the fenders of the trailer (it’ll be a little wood box, which on one side of the house will be part of the stairs and on the other side will be….architectural interest) and then over the hitch (to make a little three foot bump-out/library/bay window). That’s part of Thursday’s project. Anyway, it is quite a floor.


Today I painted it! Once we have walls, I’m going to put in bamboo flooring over the plywood subfloor, so you will never see this paint job, but I did it both to help seal/protect the subfloor and to, yet again, help keep moisture out.

Please be in awe of my fancy painting table
DSC09968I decided to live large and buy myself an extendable handle that screwed onto my paint roller. Dear friends: if you ever have to paint a floor, do yourself a favor and acquire one of these. It ruled.
DSC09970Paintin’ a floor
DSC09971Mistakes were made. I did not think to bring a) an edger or b) painter’s tape, because I was under the mistaken impression that the floor would be up and over the fenders already and I wouldn’t have any detail work to do. Which meant when I got to my beautiful diamond-plate fenders, this happened:


Diamond-plate metal fenders are not something I ever thought I would have an opinion about, but when I saw paint going on MY fenders of MY trailer, even though I knew that they were going to be covered eventually, well, I just could not have that. Had I brought a rag or a drop cloth? I HAD NOT. Luckily, I had a little piece of fleece from making dog tugs in my car, and I roped it into service, first as a rag and then as a fender cover.

Learning curve!

Much better

About that point, my mom came over to help, and boy, my mom does not mess around when it comes to painting. I had only painted about a third of the floor when she got there, but after she showed up, we had that baby knocked out in about 45 minutes.

Do not mess with my mom, or she will paint you.

BOOM. Done!

…ish. Ignore that part in the front, which requires an edger.


Tomorrow, I shall go back and do it all over again once this first coat cures.

Jeff’s got a doctor’s appointment tomorrow, so he’s not going to be back building until Thursday, but on Thursday, I will be able to help, and that is when we are going to be framing out the back of the house! And then the front of the house the next time he’s there! It is going to be like a barn raising!

Here’s what the back of the house looks like right now (and also, there’s Jeff, who attempted to escape into his house when he saw me get out the camera).


I got home and immediately jumped into working on my stove (sanded and put special high-heat enamel on the rusty cast-iron burners, polished up all the chrome with Turtle Wax: now it just needs some de-rusting on the inside, and of course to be looked at by someone who is a specialist in making alcohol stoves Not A Deathtrap). It was only when I finished that that I realized that the pool had closed, which is a problem given my mom’s eccentric notion that one does not need to have hot water in one’s house if there’s a perfectly good shower at the pool down the street. So now I am going to go, disgusting and covered in paint, to bed. Yet another of the many perils of fine homebuilding.

Pregame show: Buying the trailer!

Guys! I got my title for the utility trailer, and officially paid for the thing, which means that I am now a trailer owner! My name is on the title, I am five thousand dollars poorer*, and it is being delivered to my build site  this Monday morning at 9 AM. Jeff is going to be there at 10 AM, and we are STARTING THE BUILD! 48 hours! Halle-freaking-lujah!

*I KNOW! It’s a heavy-duty trailer, rated for 15,500 lbs, which will give me tons of room to play with (a light-duty trailer is generally rated for about 10K lbs, and since a loaded down 20×8 sq ft house is usually between 6500-7000 lbs, the extra capability seemed prudent). And it’s brand-spanking-new, which means new brakes, new lights, new tires. It’s got cool little ramps that pull out, ostensibly for loading heavy stuff, but for my purposes, serving as the base for a collapsible porch. It’s got built-in jacks to keep it level on any grade. It’s got a permanent title, which means I will never have to re-register it. It’s got welded-in tie downs, which means that even if I am in tornado country, the house is going to be able to be more permanently affixed to the earth than most stick-built houses and has a better chance of surviving a weather crisis than a lot of places. None of that shit is cheap, unfortunately. Still, $4670.79, total cost, plus titling cost, plus tax, plus delivery fee =$5063. That is 1/4th of my budget for the build. But it’s the foundation, it’s worth it, and it is by far the most expensive single thing in the build: even the cumulative cost of the lumber is not going to add up to that much. So, you know.

New baby is 7’x24′, is made by a company called PJ Trailers that makes relatively inexpensive, very high quality utility trailers, and is a longer version of this guy. We’re going to build it out on the sides to 8’6″ wide, the widest you can have on the road without special permits, and we’re going to build it out three feet lengthwise as well, split between over the hitch (which will turn into a bay window/reading nook off the living room) and off the back, for a total of 8.5 x 27. That’s 229 sq ft on the first floor (not including the loft), though not all of that will be usable space (what with, you know, walls). I won’t know the exact square footage until we actually get the loft up (we may have to make some changes to the dimensions), but it looks like my estimate of just slightly over 300 usable sq ft is going to be about right. That’s large for a tiny house, believe it or not: I’d guess from looking around online that most people are working with 8×18 trailers, leaving them a little shy of 200 sq ft (which seems awfully small for my purposes.)

Here is me, feeling like a superhero, on the New! Trailer! at the lot today. [PS: dude at the lot, besides being a super nice, very helpful guy, also informed me today that he’d sold maybe a dozen trailers to people building tiny houses in the last year or so. See, it’s not just me!]

new! trailer!

Here’s Mom, standing on what will eventually be the stairs to the loft. I think you can see the whole trailer in that picture: imagine it slightly wider and a few feet longer!
mom with new! trailer!

Monday! MONDAY! M O N D A Y!

Also, I have another new friend: this guy is a great, sturdy little boat stove that my boss gave me. He pulled it off his own boat because he used it once and decided he didn’t like the way the mechanism worked (it’s an alcohol stove: every couple of days you have to pump up the alcohol container to keep it pressurized, which is really no big deal, but to my boss, it apparently meant “Deathtrap”. He is a worrier.). Frankly, he is not the kind of guy who is doing a lot of baking on his boat anyway, so he’s just as happy with a little propane grill. He brought it back last week when he got back from his most recent sailing trip–apparently the stove got to ride in the front seat of the car all the way from the Sea of Cortez home, and his two boating buddies and all their stuff had to cram into the back. It was in kind of rough shape when I got it: nothing major, just a lot of greasy gunginess and a corroded hose, but I am taking it up to a marine stove repair guy next week so he can replace the hoses/make sure nothing’s leaking, and today I attacked it with some crazy toxic oven cleaner and a scrubby. It’s not perfect–it needs chrome polish, a coat of enamel paint on some spots and a leeeetle more de-gunging–but cute, no? It can fit a large pyrex and a small cookie sheet, it’s got two burners, and between that and a fancy convection microwave/oven/broiler thingy, I think I’ll be pretty well-equipped to cook. Hopefully. If it is not a deathtrap.

harry's boat stove, topview


Day One is probably going to be just a lot of jacking things up and leveling things and getting things organized, but there is a possibility that the floor will start being framed out that day, depending on what Jeff can do. If that happens, then Day Two will be vapor barrier, flashing, insulation, subfloor. And after that? WALLS!

PS: I am going to need to think of a fancy, Downton Abbey-style name for this house, I think: a friend of mine makes small, modern laser’ed metal signs, and wants me to come up with a name for the house so he can make it a nameplate (which sounds way too cute to resist). I was flirting with the idea of Hummingbird House, but there’s already a Hummingbird Tiny Spaces out of TN that makes prefab tiny houses, so that might be out. Hmmm, thinking.