Who’s Driving This Train Wreck?

Posted July 1st, 2009 by Kevin Rose and filed in Issue 8: Bureaucracy/Regs.
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Toms River, New Jersey suburb (above)

I heard it as recently as yesterday. “Those entrenched bureaucrats in city hall are the ones to blame!”

I was talking with a man about the state of public transportation in Burlington, Vermont. His strongly worded opinions about the current condition of our bus service and our failed attempt at reviving passenger train service pointed the finger squarely at “those pencil pushers who don’t care about anything but protecting their jobs.”

It certainly wasn’t a new argument. I hear variations of it virtually every day. “It’s the politician’s fault. It’s the bureaucracy’s fault. It’s the corporation’s fault.” Et cetera. There’s never a shortage of blame to pass around, it seems, except when it comes to turning the finger on ourselves.

I have to admit my defensiveness when it comes to blaming the bureaucrats because, you see, I was a bureaucrat once. For ten years I worked as a planner for the City of Burlington, Vermont. Not unlike other municipal planning departments, we facilitated the public process that shaped the regularly updated municipal development plans. Those plans are the policy documents that are the basis for the zoning ordinances that our office also administered and enforced.

As a progressive college town, Burlington prides itself in its success in keeping a vibrant downtown surrounded by close-knit neighborhoods and a publicly accessible waterfront. When the march of the big box stores in the surrounding hinterlands began threatening the future of our city by the lake, a call to arms gave us “Citizens for Responsible Growth” and various other organized efforts to halt the spread of what James Kuntsler so aptly describes in his book, “The Geography of Nowhere.” In an effort to protect the values of a healthy urban core, providing jobs and residences without compromising the surrounding open lands with beltways and suburban sprawl, the director of my department was at the forefront of the policy discussion. We all spoke loudly in opposition but, as is so often the case, our efforts failed. Vermont, previously the only state without a WalMart, saw the formerly agricultural soils adjacent to Exit 12 on Interstate 89 graded and paved to provide acres of free parking for the bargain-hunting throngs to follow.

Sadly, among the thousands of “consumers” excitedly taking advantage of cheaper prices as soon as those big box stores opened were my fellow planning staff members, from the director on down. In the end, it is all of us as individuals who are to blame. Policy statements and best intentions are one thing, but the implications of our daily economic decisions are what shape the world around us. We as individuals are the ones who have purchased the oversized homes, stuffing them with the latest trendy goods and stopping only long enough along the way to power up with drive-thru fast food and designer latte’s. Those purchasing decisions, not bureaucrats or corporate executives, are the real driving force.

The bureaucrats are not the reason why big box retailers are winning out over locally owned and operated alternatives. Planners are not forcing us to comply with some centrally concocted scheme for suburban sprawl, gated communities, and plastic-coated facades. It is not the zoning administrators that are plotting against those who want to build a smaller home. Politicians are not the ones responsible for the minimum size restrictions and other seemingly nonsensical regulatory requirements that go beyond zoning’s original purpose to protect the health, safety and welfare of the citizenry. Those rules came about as a direct result of collective interests that have stood to gain a lot by protecting property values and promoting increasingly bloated “dream homes.”

Should we blame the developers then? Certainly not. Just as with fast food restaurants and big box retailers, builders are responding to market demand. When I read about a community that does not allow a home of less than 1200 feet to be built within its borders, I don’t look for some renegade planner that was clever enough to foist such a requirement on the townspeople. Rather, I take a walk down the streets and look at the purchasing decisions that are reflected by individual town residents. The answers lie collectively behind those doors.

To read more of Kevin’s small home adventures, visit his blog, “Building Gypsy Rose .”

A Time to Talk

Posted June 2nd, 2009 by Kevin Rose and filed in Issue 6: Community


When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, What is it?
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall
For a friendly visit.

~Robert Frost

Before I awake in the morning I am aware of the wind’s direction. Though I have slept well, the telltale clues have filtered through my subconscious before my eyes open. The creaking of the mooring lines through the hawse pipes on Raven’s bow indicates the wind’s presence. A south wind brings long, even groans as the lines pull against the bronze fittings through the bulwarks. Open water lies to the north and breezes from that direction push choppy water down the bay. With the northerly wind my bow rises and falls. My bed rocks and the mooring lines take on a rhythmic sawing sound.

Today, the waters are glassy flat and Raven sits steady on the surface. Sunshine has been scarce of late, but the skies are clear now and the eastern horizon is aglow with early morning light.

slj-issue6-3Once up, a warm mug of coffee in hand, I climb the companionway ladder to the cockpit to take in the rising sun and the morning news on NPR. Bank swallows dart between the moored boats and the shore. Cormorants, mergansers and Canada geese swim alongside. Next comes the sound of oars dipping, pulling, rising.

“Good morning Doug!” I call.

“Hey, how’s it goin’?”

“Nice to see the sun shining after that soggy spell,” I reply.

Doug alters course in his 8-foot dingy to come alongside. We never lack for things to talk about. The conversation is animated and may quickly advance from morning pleasantries to exchanges of passionately held opinions on community and world affairs. Several minutes later, Doug pushes off with a smile and I watch him row the remaining distance to the dock where he unloads his bicycle and panniers for the six mile ride into the city where we both work.

slj-issue6-4I look around at the other moorings to see who is home. The presence of a dinghy tied to the transom lets me know that Ken and Fran are aboard and I may receive another visit when it’s time for their dog, Skipper, to go ashore for relief. Same goes for Cal and Nancy with their dogs Sadie and Lilly. Cal is always good for a story or two of his voyages to and from the Caribbean. He’s been actively trying to persuade Marion and I to go south this winter.

“You gotta just do it while ya got the chance,” he tells us. “You never know what next year will bring, so pull up and do it now.”

He and Nancy will be sailing south this fall aboard I Nida Wind. Ken and Fran will be traveling with them on their Islander 36, Release. We’d love to join them, but we’ve got a timber frame storage shed to finish before the snows fly. Maybe next time.

slj-issue6-6In the coming weeks our Canadian neighbors return for the summer. Serge and Annie and their son, Victor, aboard Clementine. Ivan and Natalie sail a teak decked Beneteau, Scaramouche.

On my way down the harbor after work I spot the gathering of friends in Scaramouche’s large cockpit. I tie up my dinghy among the ones already secured to the boat’s aft cleats and climb aboard while Ivan fetches a cold beer from below. The conversation switches from French to English and I make my usual excuses for my inability to speak the primary language of my Quebecois neighbors. Natalie tells me that she needs all the English practice she can get. Ivan’s son plays his guitar while we laugh often and catch up on the events of the winter months through which we’d been apart.

slj-issue6-5When I made the decision to move aboard a small boat years ago, I was unaware of the richness of the floating communities and the bonds that form among sailors. Those connections don’t come as a surprise, however. Whether it be life afloat aboard my sloop, Raven, working the land surrounding my tiny Gypsy Rose, or riding my bicycle on an extended tour, the commonality is what Thoreau once described as, “Contact!” The trend toward larger and more insular homes or the living of life largely contained within a virtual world – be it TV or the Internet – is not one that I choose to embrace. I’d rather feel the wind on my face. I want to hear the white-throated sparrow’s call in the morning – not an air-conditioner’s incessant hum in an isolated, climate controlled interior. Living small and simple means living much closer to communities of all types. Human, animal, plant – I want to touch it all. Moon, stars, sun – I want to marvel with the wonder of it all. I want to step outside the door and take the time to talk.


To read more of Kevin’s small home adventures, visit his blog, “Building Gypsy Rose .”

A Mobile Foundation

Posted May 4th, 2009 by Kevin Rose and filed in Issue 4: Do-It-Yourself

gypsy_rides_9Standing in front of a typical 2,500 square foot 21st century home, there may be few who would think to themselves, “I can build one of those.” But, if you were to put someone in front of a 150 square foot small home, the reaction might be quite different. Even though the large and small houses may be functionally equivalent (kitchen, bathroom, living, dining, and bedrooms), the scale of the small home project can dramatically alter the perception of what is possible in terms of building one’s own house.

That, in my view, is one of the beauties of the small house movement. At a time when so many are beginning to recognize the benefits of living in smaller spaces, they are also thinking, “Maybe I can build one of those myself.”

For two and a half years I have been writing a blog called “Building Gypsy Rose.” Like so many rookie bloggers, I began with the sole purpose of keeping family and friends apprised of my latest crazy ideas but the readership has grown and now includes many who have begun their own process of designing and building a tiny home. (Yes, you can!) Looking back over my blog entries (again, primarily aimed at family and friends), I’ve come to realize that for the do-it-yourselfer a bit more detail might be in order.

In this article I’d like to expand a bit on a component of my home that has prompted much interest and many questions in the blog – the foundation.

gypsy_rides_7Gypsy Rose is of the rolling variety. Her foundation has wheels. Certainly not a novel concept, but the design considerations involved with building a four-season, traditionally constructed house within the constraints of highway-legal dimensions on a roadworthy chassis have not been given the same treatment as the more common poured concrete platform. Needless to say, I couldn’t find a lot of literature on the topic and had to sort out the details on my own.

Back in the 60’s and 70’s the builders of “hippy trucks” used well-worn trucks or buses as a starting point, but many of today’s tiny home projects begin with a trailer that can be detached from the means of locomotion. Of those, the most commonly used is what is often referred to as a utility trailer. The larger trailers of this type may be rated at 7,000 or 10,000 pound gross weight capacity and can be purchased new for between $3,000 and $5,000. When I first started conceptualizing Gypsy Rose I envisioned using a utility trailer as a starting point. A closer look at my design parameters, however, led me to what I now believe is a more suitable alternative. Rather than adapting to a trailer that was meant for hauling landscaping equipment or automobiles, I decided on a custom-made, purpose built foundation for my tiny home.

frame_deliveredWe begin with the challenge of building within the dimensional restrictions of a vehicle that can be towed down the highway without needing a special wide-load permit. In Vermont, my tiny house is limited to an 8.5-foot width and a 13.5-foot height. The length (20 feet) was determined by the physical limits of the intended towing vehicle and the road I had to navigate to the land where Gypsy now rests. With those dimensions in mind, here are some of the considerations that were factored into the trailer’s design.

  • Weight capacity: This was a tough one. When I started building Gypsy I didn’t have any idea how much she’d weigh when all was done. I ended up selecting axles rated at 3,500 pounds apiece. Using two axles, I have a capacity of 7,000 pounds for my home. (If I had to do it again, I’d have gone with a pair of 5,000 pound axles for a 10,000 pound capacity.)
  • bolt_nailersFrame material: For strength and rigidity, as well as ease of attaching the floor joists, I went with 2” x 6” box steel (as opposed to angle iron or I-beam cross-sections).
  • Hitch size: The minimum for a tiny house of Gypsy’s size is two and five-sixteenths inches.
  • Wheel size: I used 16” wheels capable of handling (the still unknown) weight of my home.
  • Brakes: Surge brakes are commonly used on trailers. (The requirement for brakes varies by state.)
  • Tongue weight (the amount of weight that rests on the hitch of the towing vehicle): This should be about 10% of the gross weight. For a tiny house that tips the scales at 5000 pounds, the tongue weight should be 500 pounds. Tongue weight is altered by how the weight of the house is distributed over its length and by the positioning of the axles along the frame. If the axles are placed too far back you’ll end up with too much weight on the hitch. If they are placed too far forward you will have less weight on the hitch but it will cause the towed trailer to handle poorly (dangerous!). Gypsy Rose’s configuration ended up with a tad too much weight on the hitch due to the fact that the heavier rooms (kitchen and bathroom) plus the tool shed (an afterthought) brought more weight forward.
  • Ground clearance: If you’re trying to squeeze two levels of living space into the 13.5 foot overall height, the lower the trailer frame can ride while still negotiating the obstacles on the highway, the better.
  • joists_nearly_completeFloor joist attachment: This was the consideration that more than any other led to a custom-built trailer. Most utility trailers come with a frame that is designed to accommodate a thick plank bed. Small house builders often construct their floor joist systems on top of that bed – quite commonly out of 2×4’s. Well, here in Vermont where wintertime temperatures get darned cold, I knew that I’d need more insulating space than what is offered by a 2×4 cavity. At a minimum, I needed the room provided by 2×6 floor joists, but if I’d built it on the bed of a utility trailer I’d be subtracting more precious inches from the space I needed to accommodate the combined height of the first floor and the sleeping loft above. I ended up having the trailer built with 2” x 6” box steel in a configuration that allowed me to bolt the joists alongside the steel frame members without losing any interior space to the floor joists. As you can see in the accompanying photos, my trailer frame is completely integral to the floor joist system. The plywood sub-flooring rests cleanly on both the steel and wooden surfaces.
  • subfloorFender wells: I didn’t want my trailer to come with any. I preferred the ability to integrate the fender wells into the interior of my home – again to avoid any unnecessary loss of interior space. On Gypsy Rose, the surface of the exterior siding is on the same plane as the outside edge of the trailer tires and the wooden fender wells were constructed as part of the wall/floor framing.
  • Taillights, etc.: I didn’t want my home to sport taillights and a license plate holder so I opted for fixtures that can be temporarily screwed to the underside of the trailer’s aft end for use only during transport.

With all of the above in mind, where does one find such a one-of-a-kind specialty rolling frame on which to build a tiny house? I ended up hiring a friend who is in the business of manufacturing custom boat trailers, but there are many custom trailer manufacturers that one can choose from. (Although I would not recommend it to the inexperienced, one could buy all of the components I’ve listed above from readily available sources and, with welder in hand, assemble a trailer in true do-it-yourself fashion.)

What about cost? I paid $2,600 for my custom-made trailer but that might be somewhat lower than average due to the fact that it was a long-time friend who did the work for me.

Foundations aren’t glamorous. In the end they are mostly hidden from view, but beginning with a well-designed trailer frame was an essential first step in my Gypsy Rose project.


To read more of Kevin’s small home adventures, visit his blog, “Building Gypsy Rose .”

Introduction to Issue 3: The Authors’ Homes

Posted April 20th, 2009 by Kevin Rose and filed in Issue 3: My Current Home

slj-issue3-13Come on in. Take a look around. In this issue of Small Living Journal, we invite you to take a peek inside the authors’ own homes.

Once inside, you’ll quickly see that small living does not place limitations on creativity. On the contrary, we’ve got homes that float, homes that roll, homes for the city and homes for the country – small homes for all.


Contact! Contact!

Posted April 20th, 2009 by Kevin Rose and filed in Issue 3: My Current Home
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slj-issue3-1I sit at my desk aboard Raven, snugged up to a mooring in Burlington harbor. There is a bronze oval portlight above the desk, framing the view of the city immediately to the east of me. The sounds of the urban world filter in – the hammering of new construction along Battery Street, automobiles darting about, sirens in the distance, children playing in the park.

Another portlight frames the view to the west. Juniper Island floats on a watery foreground. The Adirondacks rise from Lake Champlain’s western shores. A squall has wrapped the peaks in cold, wet clouds that have now descended to the lake. They are moving quickly eastward toward Vermont.

“Talk of mysteries-Think of our life in
nature-daily to be shown matter, to come
in contact with it-rocks, trees, wind on
our cheeks! the solid earth! the actual world!
the common sense! Contact! Contact!
Who are we? where are we?”

Ever since first reading Thoreau’s essay, “The Maine Woods”, I’ve thought long about his words.

“Contact! Contact!”

The modern world lies to the east of me, the approaching storm and wildness to the west.

“Who are we? Where are we?”

I climb the steps of the companionway. In the cockpit of my floating home, the views that I’d seen separately through two bronze windows now combine as one.

“Contact! Contact!”



For seven months of the year I make my home aboard a 34-foot Pacific Seacraft sailing sloop named Raven. The choice to to take up residence on a boat was born of three desires. First, from a practical standpoint, Burlington’s housing market was, and still is, well out of my reach. Even if I had been able to afford a home at highly inflated prices, I knew then that the bubble was on the verge of bursting. No thank you.

slj-issue3-3Secondly, I’ve had a decades-long love affair with water. Rivers, lakes and oceans have all seduced me. I make a large part of my living on the water and the water is where I turn when it’s time to play. In making a decision for where I would live, I knew that water would not be far away.

slj-issue3-4Finally, and most significantly, I had become more and more troubled by my own (and our society’s at large) increasing distance from the elements that sustain us. I yearned for a life of greater contact. And so it was, in May of 2005, a pretty boat named Raven captured my heart and became my introduction to the small home lifestyle.

Live-aboard communities have existed for many years alongside busy waterfronts in harbors up and down the coast. Thousands of these tiny homes often go unrecognized for what they are. They are too often lost amid the boats that function merely as a high-priced hobby, or perhaps as a weekend retreat or the object of an unrealized dream to sail over the horizon. For those of us who’ve adapted to life afloat, however, the cruising sailboat represents a highly evolved, self-contained and extremely efficient housing style from which the contemporary small house movement could draw on a wealth of innovation and ideas. In fact, it was my appreciation for the design of my boat that inspired my other tiny house.


Gypsy Rose

slj-issue3-6When I first moved aboard Raven I had visions of the boat as my year-round Burlington, Vermont residence. I dreamed of finding a piece of land on which I could “park” Raven when the waters froze, continuing to live aboard even while “on the hard.” It was a short-lived idea. Considering the challenges of finding a landowner near the lake to host my boat, moving the 14,000 pound vessel twice a year, and perhaps most onerous, dealing with the inevitable regulatory hurdles that restrict our housing choices in favor of homogenous neighborhoods, I decided to build a land-based home along more traditional lines.

slj-issue3-7Welcome to Gypsy Rose. She was built in partnership with my long-time best friend and now partner, Marion. (Being a land-based translation of the boat, nautical traditions dictate that our winter home be named and referenced as “her” and “she.”) She is 20 feet long (not including the shed on the tongue end), 8.5 feet wide, and 13.5 feet in height. The first level has a total of 115 square feet of interior space and a 4 foot by 8.5 foot porch. Above, a sleeping loft extends the entire 20 foot length.

slj-issue3-8We began building Gypsy Rose in November of 2006 and she remains very much a work in progress. I’ll eventually build the cherry and maple cabinets, the dining booth, the pantry shelves, and the pocket door for the bathroom, but for now we happily get by with temporary placeholders for those features that allow us to refine the design through our experiences of living in the space.

slj-issue3-9Gypsy Rose is sited in the central of three meadows on our land in eastern Vermont. The road up the mountain is unmaintained by the town and only passable during 8 months of the year. From the time of deep snows through the end of Vermont’s fifth season – mud season – we enjoy the absence of vehicles. We pack our provisions a half-mile from the nearest plowed road beneath the canopy of the 150-year-old sugar maples that line the single lane track. No power lines detract from a landscape that has remained unchanged for centuries. We make our own electricity from the sun and haul our water from the stream. We watch the owls and woodpeckers and wrens outside the window. Fox, deer, moose and bear regularly visit the meadows around us. Coyotes call from across the stream at night.

“Think of our life in nature-daily to be
shown matter, to come in contact
with it-rocks, trees, wind on our cheeks!
the solid earth! the actual world!
the common sense! Contact! Contact!”


To read more of Kevin’s small home adventures, visit his blog, “Building Gypsy Rose .”