The Foundation and Framing
With little exception, my first portable house (also known as Tumbleweed) was built by using the most standard methods of construction. Like any other mobile home, my structure sit on a steel chassis – in this case, a 7’ x 14’ flatbed, utility trailer. I took most of the wooden deck off to save weight and put aluminum flashing over the gaps to safeguard against mice. The floor framing was laid on top of that. I used two-by-fours spaced about 24 inches apart on center.
Once that framing was assembled, I filled the cavities between the boards with foam board insulation and spray foam and capped the whole thing off with some ¾-inch plywood subflooring.
The walls were framed right over the wheel wells using headers just as you would over any other opening. I used two-by-four studs and rafters spaced twenty-four inches on center rather than the more typical sixteen inches. This is a fairly standard practice used to save both money and natural resources. At this point, I was using it primarily to save weight. My flatbed was rated to hold 7,000 pounds.
Tumbleweed would have to withstand not only the normal wear and tear of everyday living, but also the occasional jolts and gale-force winds generated by highway travel. To prepare for this, I used what has come to be called the “screw-and-glue” method of sheathing. This means that a bead of construction adhesive was squeezed onto the entire length of every framing member before 3/8” plywood sheathing was screwed (not nailed) to its surface. This makes for a structure far more resistant to lateral wind loads than sheathing secured with nails alone.
The only other special building consideration, after the foundation and bracing, for a little house on wheels is condensation. Unless they are insulated, sealed, and vented properly, small spaces are prone to a lot of condensation. It simply takes less time to fill the air in a small enclosure with the moisture caused by bathing, breathing, laundry, and cooking than it does to fill a large one. If that warm, moist air comes into contact with a sufficiently cold surface, it will condense into water. That is the reason that cars come equipped with defrosters, and that small houses need to be equipped with the right insulation, vapor retarders, and ventilation.
I used expanded polystyrene foam board as insulation with expanding spray foam in the seams for two basic reasons: 1) It takes a thicker piece of fiberglass batting to get the same amount of insulating power as you get out of a piece of extruded polystyrene. As I didn’t have enough space for eight-inch-thick walls, this would have stood as reason enough for my choice. 2) Foam board is far more resistant to condensation.
With fiberglass batting and other porous insulations, you have to worry about moist air getting into it and condensing when the moisture gets to the cold part of the wall. At that point, the fluffy, pink stuff turns to mush, and mush doesn’t insulate. It rots. To prevent this, you have to use a vapor retarder. This is usually just a large sheet of six-millimeter plastic hung over the inside surface of the batting and sealed at its edges. If your seals hold and your plastic does not rip, your fiberglass should stay fairly dry.
Expanded polystyrene with an impermeable coating does not need a vapor retarder. Being virtually waterproof makes it its own retarder. I chose the white, expanded polystyrene over the pink, extruded poly because, while I love the pink stuff for its superior insulating qualities, bugs love it, too.
The threat of condensation is also what prompted me to use double-glazed, insulated windows. The glass panes on a little abode can fog up pretty quickly unless they are well protected against the cold. I’ve found that windows sold with gas between the interior and exterior panes work pretty well for this purpose.
The other primary way to eliminate condensation in a small enclosure is by venting it. I installed a fan at the peak of my loft. It sucks moisture-laden air out of my living quarters when I am cooking or bathing and helps keep the place cool during the summer. On cold days, the vent can be sealed with a plug I cut from some leftover scraps of foam board.
A well-designed little house is like an oversized house with the unusable parts removed. Such refinement is achieved through subtractive design — the systematic elimination of all that does not contribute to the intended function of a composition. In the case of residential architecture, everything not enhancing the quality of life within a dwelling must go. Anything not working to this end works against it. Extra bathrooms, bedrooms, gables and extra space require extra money, time and energy from the occupant(s). Superfluous luxury items are a burden. A simple home, unfettered by extraneous gadgets, is the most effective labor-saving device there is.
Subtractive design is used in disciplines ranging from industrial design to civil engineering. In machine design, its primary purpose is demonstrated with particular clarity. The more parts there are in a piece of machinery, the more inefficient it will be. This is no less true of a home than it is of an engine.
Remembering Common Sense
Most of our new houses are really not designed at all, but assembled without much thought for their ultimate composition. Architects seldom have anything to do with the process. Instead, a team of marketing engineers comes up with a product that will bring in more money at less cost to the developer. The team’s job is to devise a cheap structure that people will actually pay good money for. Low-grade, vinyl siding, ornamental gables and asphalt shingles have become their preferred medium. Adding extra square footage is about the cheapest, easiest way there is to increase a property’s market value, so it is applied liberally without any apparent attempt to make the additional space particularly useful. The final product is almost always a bulky conglomeration of parts without cohesion — a success, by industry standards, where oversized invariably equals big profits.
Even when left to certified architects, the design of our homes can sometimes be less than sensible. Too frequently, a licensed architect’s self-perceived need for originality takes precedence over the real needs of his or her clients. Common sense is abandoned for frivolous displays of talent. Where a straight gable would make the most sense, a less savvy architect will throw in a few cantilevers and an extra dormer, just for show. Subtractive design is abandoned for hopes of personal recognition and for what is likely to be a very leaky house. Common sense is an inherent part of all great architecture. Sadly, this crucial resource has become anything but common in the creation of residential America.
Certainly the most famous example of those whose aspirations for a good name took precedence over good design was Frank Lloyd Wright. Wright was fond of innovative methods and extravagant forms. Those novel houses that once earned him recognition as a peerless innovator have since earned him another kind of reputation. Leaks are a part of many Wright houses. Wright has become infamous not only for his abundant drips but for his impudent dismissal of their significance. “If the roof doesn’t leak,” he professed, “the architect hasn’t been creative enough.” And to those clients who dared to complain about seepage, he would repeatedly quip, “That’s how you can tell it’s a roof.”
Subtractive design is integral to, and nearly synonymous with, vernacular design. Both entail planning a home that will satisfy its inhabitants’ domestic needs without far exceeding them. This is also what is known as common sense. When applied to buildings, the word “vernacular” in fact means “common”: that is to say “ordinary” and “of the people.” In contrast to housing that is made by professionals for profit or fame, vernacular housing is designed by ordinary folks simply striving to house themselves by the most proven and effective means available.
Webster’s defines vernacular as “architectural expression employing the commonest forms, materials, and decorations” (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, G. and C. Merriam Co. 1966. p. 2544). If a particular type of roof works better than any other, then that is what is used. In short, vernacular architecture is not the product of invention, but of evolution—its parts plucked from the great global stew pot of common knowledge and common forms. Anything is fair game so long as it has been empirically proven to work well and withstand the test of time. By using only tried-and-true forms and building practices, such design successfully avoids the multitude of post-occupancy problems typical of more “innovative” architecture.
The vernacular home does not preclude modern conveniences. There are, after all, better ways to insulate these days than with buffalo skins. The vernacular designer appropriates the best means currently available to meet human needs, but, technology is, of course, employed only where it will enhance the quality of life within a dwelling and not cause undue burden.
One of the great debates surrounding Tiny Houses is whether to have your Tiny Home on a trailer or not. I have seen several discussions on this topic and find that both sides have merit.
To get at the root of this debate, we should probably start off with discussing why it even exists. Why they heck did people start putting houses on trailers?
Originally, Tiny Houses weren’t much smaller than those in which many Americans lived, and which today, what the rest of the world lives in. The existence of building codes weren’t an issue. So long as you paid your taxes, you were fine. That said, in earlier times, there still existed some homogeneity from house to house because building a home was something the whole community would come together to do. Most people in that day had a pretty solid grasp of the general principles of home building, but by the action of coming together, there was some consistency to every home.
As society progressed, or regressed in some cases, our municipalities and tax structures become more rigid. Concurrently, we began to see an increase in home size, not because of occupancy, but because of status. Taxes of course followed and as a result, the combination of evolution of building codes and the need for baseline taxation, we find ourselves where we are today. Today you are going to be hard pressed to be able to legally build a house under 500 square feet without special permission, which is becoming harder to get.
Enter the trailer. Trailers were originally thought to be a loop hole, to be frank, whereby potential builders could get around these minimum standards for square footage. The underlying principle was that a trailer is something that doesn’t have a lot of bureaucratic red tape, that is easily purchased, that is minimally taxed if at all, and that in many states doesn’t even have to be registered. The trailer presented a solution to many of the issues that building codes presented. As a side note, there are several reasons for building codes outside of taxation; safety issues motivate many of the codes in existence.
The next big benefit of trailers is that by avoiding building codes, we have been able to take a complex system of regulation and neatly avoid it. Tiny Houses can be built by someone with very little knowledge but with some basic common sense. If you have ever taken a moment to do some digging on your local building codes you can see that they can be difficult to understand or even find. Removing these constraints from the equation makes the prospect of building a Tiny House on your own much more manageable.
Costs are yet another reason why many seek to build Tiny Houses on trailers. With the elimination of building codes, you by proxy take out contractors, inspectors, permits and certified tradesmen. The average mark up of hired help is roughly 40%. Permits can run a few bucks to several hundreds or even thousands of dollars! Finally, inspections are also removed by pursuing the trailer route. With them in the equation, construction can easily come to a screeching halt quickly and bring lots of worry to the build site.
Also, with a trailer approach the build site doesn’t have to be the same as the home site. There are obvious advantages to building a Tiny House in a warehouse or a wood shop. You can work regardless of the weather, you can heat/cool the space for comfortable work, and you can bring in power which you might not have where you will be living. All these things mean that you can build in one spot and live in another without having to make concessions.
Finally, Tiny Houses on trailers will allow you to roam. There are three distinct advantages here. The first is related to an earlier point, building code enforcement. Let’s say that you have your Tiny House and somehow your local inspector finds out, you can easily preemptively move it or say that it is there temporarily.
The second benefit it being able to move. Moving for a job or school can be a huge expense and while companies have “moving packages”, this isn’t the case for many of us. All you need to do with a trailer Tiny House is to secure a space in the new location and what once was a headache, becomes a road trip with all the comforts of home.
Finally, part of my overall life simplification plan is to get to a point where I work independent of a location, a virtual worker if you will. This means that I can live anywhere. But why stop there? Taking this to the next level, lets live wherever, whenever. What I mean by this is, you could own 5 small plots of land around the country and rotate between them. Unimproved land is very cheap (both tax wise and cost) in many places so why not have a plot of land near your favorite ski resort, one down the road from family, and another near your favorite city. You can have your cake and eat it too read about my approaches to working here.
Now what are the advantages to forgoing the trailer, to building on piers or a standard foundation? I think the two biggest advantages to this approach are size and legal acceptance.
The size of a house is greatly limited to the trailer you have to build on. In addition you have to concern yourself with road clearance heights. This isn’t the case with Tiny Houses on Trailers, you can build your home to the footprint and height that suits you. This is a very powerful aspect to non-trailer Tiny Houses because you gain flexibility. You are able to build your house around your needs, not the needs of the trailer.
Legal acceptance by municipalities is an important concern. It can be very hard to get code enforcement on board with what you are trying to do with a Tiny House on a trailer. Having a traditional foundation and a house in the 400-500 square foot range, building codes become applicable. This inherently does bring in extra costs of permits, contractors, and certified tradesmen. The outcome of this is that you are seen as a law abiding citizen, you don’t have to worry about inspectors bring down fines upon you and your house will be inherently safer.
For more articles like this one visit TheTinyLife.com
Dee is my tiny house hero. You’ve probably heard about Dee’s tiny house adventures. She’s been interviewed by NPR, Good Morning America, MSNBC, and a variety of other local media outlets about her experiments with voluntary simplicity. She built her tiny house for $10,000 in about 3 months, using mostly recycled building materials.
Katy Anderson rocks. She’s been in the trades for over 20 years and defines her work as “Finish Carpentry”. Katy recently graduated from a two-year program at the School of the Redwoods in Fort Bragg, California. It was great talking with Katy about her experience and her future plans.
Dee and Katy recently started their own tiny house company called, Portland Alternative Dwellings.
Logan and I have been pondering building our own tiny home and this was the perfect opportunity to learn from two experienced builders.
I loved the structure of the class; it was all about active learning and contained an incredible amount of valuable information. We learned about general construction techniques, how to stay safe with power tools, discussed building codes and built the foundation of a tiny mobile office.
It was great to see two amazing women leading the workshop. I’ve always been scared to use power tools, but I walked away from the workshop feeling confident. I think Logan and I could build our own tiny home. We still need to do more research, find the time and people to help us. Even if we don’t build the home ourselves, the workshop equipped us with basic knowledge that will help us if we hire a contractor. And I can start scavenging for materials to use in our tiny home.
We didn’t talk a lot about design and that’s okay because I was more interested in learning about construction basic’s. But Dee did mention the importance of design and considering your needs. She recommended Jay Shafer’s workshop for learning about design and material choices.
Logan and I have been bickering about the style of our tiny house. So we both really enjoyed Dee’s analogy of tiny homes to clothing. She mentioned how important it was to “try on” different styles to see if they fit your body type and personal habits. I lean toward a house design similar to Dee’s and Logan is more partial toward the Naked Galapagos.
Dee and Katy’s main message was to start talking about these things now rather than waiting until the building starts.
If Dee and Katy host more workshops, I’d highly recommend signing up for their class. Learning about construction techniques, tool use, and connecting with fellow tiny house enthusiasts was incredible.
So, you’ve decided that everybody else’s designs don’t quite fit and you want something completely unique, right? You want to design it yourself so you get exactly what you want. Now how do you begin?
First, I suggest taking a long hard look at the life that you want to live after you move into your small space. You must be realistic about your space requirements. Do you want to entertain people? Do you need a home office? Do you like to cook? You MUST be completely honest with yourself and don’t hold utopian ideals about how your life will be once you’re settled.
Next think about your storage requirements. Are you a minimalist who has only 3 shirts, 2 pairs of pants and 1 pair of shoes? Are you a seamstress or a crafty person who needs alot of storage? Once again, really consider your storage needs. And don’t forget to factor in those items that are easily forgettable: toothbrush, toothpaste, et cetera. I would make a list of everything you want to pack around with you in your little house. My personal goal is to be able to pack every thing I own into 3 medium sized boxes.
While you are designing, take into consideration not only floor plan but also think about things like your water heater, your home heat, all the tiny details. And we like to think that looks aren’t everything but lets face it, we all want a pretty home so don’t forget aesthetics! I like to plot everything out on paper first and then I like to tape it out on the floor so I can get a sense of scale. Then I whip out my Google Sketchup and go to town drawing it up. I haven’t had a chance to actually build a home yet, but it’s on my to do list.
I also recommend making a list of the reasons why you wanted to go small and keep them by your side as you design. That way you can keep your goal pure and create your perfect home.
Also don’t forget to use the tips and tricks featured in last month’s edition of SLJ!
Live free! Lelly