Weekend 6 of Construction
This weekend doesn’t look like much progress in pictures, but it was a lot of preparation and the hard stuff; we worked on the bathroom bay window/utility closet, and started on the Dutch door retrofitting. Eventually we will cut a round top in the door, and lap end pieces to the cut edges of the Dutch door to make it strong and air/water tight. Sounds really simple but we had a huge debate about how best to do that. All agreed that it will be gorgeous when it is done; in fact it is such a pretty door it was fairly intimidating to make that first cut. The door is solid teak, after all – you’d have to try really hard not to have it look beautiful. Another awesome Craigslist find.
Some of us worked on plumbing/electrical logistics to stay out of the way. To our horror, our RV water inlet had this little sticker on the back (and we even went out of our way to hunt down a mostly metal water inlet instead of a plastic one! It’s a conspiracy…)
We also put together the rafters and raised them, temporarily screwing them down, mostly so we could feel good about our progress on something; next week we will put in blocking and attach hurricane clips (H 2.5’s) to make it really sturdy, and finally sheet the roof and put up fascia board. We decided to make our walls narrower so we could actually have eaves and rain gutters since it rains a heck of a lot more where we are than in Jay Shafer’s part of the world.
It was really good timing on hindsight, as we saw dark clouds coming and decided to tack down the black plastic over the roof in case it rained a little. It usually doesn’t rain a lot, but we didn’t have a good way of covering the floor any more since we had put up criss-crossed supports for squaring and stabilizing the walls in preparation for the roof. We had just gone inside when it POURED for about 20 minutes! We checked afterwards and there was some pooling of water but only where the North-facing windows were, so we tacked up coverings for the windows, too. The doorways will have to stay open until next week. Hopefully it doesn’t rain that hard again for at least a week!
In other news, we picked up some sheets of Magnum Board from a very nice fellow named Jim of EcoAbode, LLC in Tacoma who specializes in green building materials. Evidently he is familiar with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, and he was very sympathetic to our cause. He’s the closest supplier of magnesium oxide board to Oregon (the next closest is in Northern California), so I will put his info on the Materials List page for those interested.
Also, I talked to a lady in Portland at a place called Brush & Trowel who is a great resource for questions on non-toxic plaster finishes. We are thinking of doing tadelakt for our shower stall instead of the usual galvanized steel or aluminum sheet, and she recommended a system called EcoStucco, which carries a very fine plaster suitable for for it, and the elusive “Savon Noire” recommended for burnishing and waterproofing. Normally I shy away from patented “systems” but in this case, I don’t want to deal with a DIY lime plaster debacle, especially for such small square footage and a short time frame. She said she had tadelakt installed for her shower and loves it, and didn’t see why we couldn’t use it, so long as we keep the whole thing really rigid to prevent cracking. The demo tile she showed us used a stiff cement board backing, followed by what appears to be an entirely superfluous layer of nasty paint, and topped with at most 1/16″ of plaster. Since the Magnum Board is really stiff, I think it would work great if it has solid framing behind it. The Magnum Board is 60 lbs per 4′ x 8′ x 3/8″ (9 mm) sheet, so the plaster won’t add much more weight, and we wouldn’t even use a full sheet. If we like it, we were thinking of doing the floor in Magnum Board with plaster as well, since our house will be a shoe-free area anyway, and the dog hates bathrooms (they are scary places, with BATHs and the site of a very mysterious but offensive habit of pooping in the same place, inside your house – very unhygienic) so no worry of dog nails. And there is certainly no worry of high heels in this household! We have not seen any tiny housers do anything similar, so hopefully there isn’t a very good reason not to – if anyone knows why we shouldn’t, do let us know!
Weekend 4 of Construction
After working in the Big City over Memorial Day weekend, we happily drove back to our Tiny. It felt like a vacation. The last weekend we were in town we built one and a half of the four walls, so this week we built the remaining ones: the long wall which we designed with passive solar in mind (i.e. lots of windows, to face south), the front door wall, and the bay/bathroom wall. The long wall we raised in three sections (in front of, in back of and over the wheel well), so before we placed the header over the wheel well we applied rubber door weatherstripping as before. We figure that will help prevent any stray water from infiltrating our wall and keep things warmer.
Then we raised the last wall, the one for our front door. Instantly, we have what feels like a house. Several of our relatives came to visit, and like anyone would, they tease that we are crazy, and then start dreaming about their own tiny house… We decided it is too big, and too small, so it is perfect! Standing inside it we can finally visualize the space, and all the windows that didn’t look like enough on paper look like fabulous natural light washing everything now. A pleasant surprise! One of our dads is also a handyman with a welder, so he made us some awesome brackets to tie the Simpson Strong Ties to our trailer frame without having to weld bolts on and destroy the finish, encouraging rust formation. The Strong Ties will in turn be thoroughly attached to studs so that our house doesn’t just rip off the subfloor while we are towing her. We have heard that would be bad.
While the boys were playing with the power tools, some of us spent time stripping nasty Latex, then lead paint, off of our antique windows. When they are clean & sanded we will seal them with linseed oil on the inside and a water-based sealer on the outside.
We also cut the roof joists (“we” being our other awesome dad), and ordered some very special glue from Canada last week made from linseed oil, which should hopefully arrive by the end of this week. It is surprising how much we take adhesive for granted – we are so glad we found the glue we did, as we obviously had concerns about nasty chemicals right above our sleeping loft! Once the epoxy arrives, we can glue our homemade joists together and put up our roof! We’ll spend most of next week sheeting the walls, finishing framing the bay window and utility closet, and putting up the roof. We hope to be able to sleep in our loft in two weeks!
We were so excited for week three because
We were so excited for week three because it was time to start putting up some walls! After the deck was screwed down, squared up, and some lines were snapped for our walls we set out our new jacks. It is very important to start framing from a square and level surface. We set our jacks in each of the four corners and lifted each one just a little bit, then we got out a 6′ level and raised or lowered each corner to the appropriate height.
There were many factors that went into determining which wall we would start with. Unsurprisingly, one of the primary factors was which wall would be simplest to compose and frame. The rear wall, nearest the tongue of the trailer, was ideal because there wasn’t much going in the wall that we needed to plan out right away, but it gave us a great visual reference for flushing out many of the details that still needed to be worked out. There is a 5′ wide window in the middle of the loft, so we put a header in at the top of the wall. We left the rest open because we will be framing out a bay window over the tongue later on.
The second wall was a little more complex. It has three windows, all of which had their own little puzzles to solve. One window is in the shower. We wanted it to be as high as possible but it also has to be underneath the loft. We had to first figure out how high it was to the bottom of the loft, then put in the header so the loft joists could sit on top of it. The second window is nestled in the stairwell, so to figure out where it belonged we had to calculate out a rough idea of where each step would be falling. The third window is in the kitchen. It sits between the sink and an overhead cupboard. We wanted to make sure the cupboard was low enough to be useful and the window had to clear our wall-mounted faucet.
We actually framed the wall as two 10 foot walls to keep things easy on our backs. Once the walls were up and braced we had to frame in the wheel-well. This was a little tricky as we had to make our framing water-tight around the fenders.
We used some exterior door rubber weather strips. The strips have a little adhesive on the back that we snugged up against the metal fenders, then we pressed the header down into the gasket to seal it. Once it was all framed in we used a ratchet strap to cinch the two walls together before joining them with the top plate to give ourselves one beautiful wall!
Weekend 1: Subfloor Underlayment and Sealing
So we hauled the trailer over the mountains with much trepidation, and arrived without a problem. The trailer actually tows very well. Everyone who sees her says she’s beautiful! Here was the view welcoming us:
First step, laying the subfloor. Since we have fancy extendo-crossmembers we actually have to frame in 5 boxes, two on either side of the fenders plus the main area. Which brings us to the first conundrum: what type of underlayment do we want? It needs to be strong enough to handle the errant stick, keep out moisture, rodents, and other would-be residents, and protect the floor insulation.
Tumbleweed recommends aluminum flashing nailed to pressure treated lumber stringers laid on their flat side, framing, followed by extruded polystyrene foam with expanding foam insulation to fill in the cracks. Nasty chemicals, the whole lot, and would definitely off-gas! And we discovered that to use aluminum flashing would cost $200. Ouch.
PAD recommends marine grade coated waterproof 1/4″ plywood, followed by wool insulation (treated with only borax). We really like the wool idea (especially since it is grown in Oregon, and sold in Ranier!), but coated marine grade plywood is, again, nasty stuff. In general, adhesives and sealants are the hidden bugaboos for MCS-ers trying to build a house, and marine-grade plywood fails on both counts, although it is thin, lightweight, and waterproof. Traditional construction adhesives all typically use solvents that off-gas, at minimum, a lot of formaldehyde. Now, the pig-headed construction orthodoxy will argue that natural wood off-gasses formaldehyde too, and technically they are correct, so if you see a wood product that says “No VOCs”, they are lying. However, the RATE and AMOUNT is so tiny as to be almost unmeasurable, so as close to natural wood as possible is the way to go.
So about plywood. Interior grade plywood often uses urea-formaldehyde adhesive, which is the worst of the adhesives; ironically the very stuff you would have closest to you, breathing in the goodness. No surprise, as once again, most construction adhesives are derived from fossil fuels. Exterior grade plywood typically uses phenol-formaldehyde, which still off-gasses, but at a much lower rate. You can find interior plywood at greater cost that is urea-formaldehyde-free (meaning they use phenol-formaldehyde), but you cannot find a lo-VOC exterior grade plywood. At least we couldn’t. OSB (oriented strand board) is, along with particleboard, the nastiest of all the plywoods, heaviest, and turns to oatmeal when wet, so no OSB anywhere in our house. It’s only benefit in construction is that it is a little cheaper.
So we went for the least of evils:
Galvanized steel flashing, which cost half as much as the aluminum, a 3/8″ thick sheet of CDX (a type of exterior grade) plywood on top of that, followed by our stringers of 2×6″ pine. To seal the cracks in the flashing, we used a type of adhesive flashing tape… joy! Back to the computer, looked it up, and there are two large groups of flashing tapes, those made with asphalt and those made with butyl rubber. Apparently the latter is not good, but not terrible as it does not off-gas any VOCs unlike asphalt tape. Here’s the article for your interest: http://www.bestmaterials.com/PDF_Files/flashing-tapes-manual.pdf
And for your information, metal flashing is a pain in the butt to get tight enough if you are just screwing it straight into your cross-members, which is probably why Jay used the stringers as he did. We found out the hard way that it leaves lots of gaps around the edges, and a lot of gaps in the middle if it is not perfectly tight, which is fine if you’re using polystyrene board, which no creature is terribly interested in. So we added the 3/8″ plywood the weekend after, as we thought it would be better able to protect the wool insulation, and likely why PAD used a solid wood underlayment. Next week: finish the subfloor!
Choosing Your Trailer
There are as many trailer types as there are types of people. The questions we wrestled with:
Do you want a house on wheels, or just the freedom from debt, and the ability to live and build tiny as you like?
In other words, are you better off building a <120 square foot house to lower costs and avoid building permits? The International Building Code (which is really a misnomer – it’s used pretty much only in the US and Canada) specifies that permanent structures under 120 square feet and 11′ average roof height do not require a building permit, thereby fulfilling most of the goals of tiny housers except mobility. If a tiny permanent house is really what you want, but you didn’t know you could do that, I recommend you read The Hand-Sculpted House by Ianto Evans about cob house construction. Don’t know what cob is? Then you definitely need to look into it. Oregon cob is awesome, and a true green building material!
Length – most tiny houses that are lived in full time are between 16 and 20 ft long (trailers are measured by deck size, not total length, so a 20′ trailer may actually be 24′ feet long). Maximum road size for a trailer with a fixed load, such as a tiny house, is 13’6″ high from road to rooftop, and 8’6″ from side to side without needing special licensing or permits. I believe this is all states, but check into it.
Axles – how many, what type, and how much weight will they carry? Single axle trailers are for the super-light-living tiny housers, or for vacation teardrops or tinies such as this one. The axles are generally rated for somewhere between 3,500 or 5,000 lbs GVW, or gross vehicular weight. This means that the weight of the trailer must also be counted when you are figuring the weight of your house carried by the axles. The weight rating depends on a few things, such as the thickness and shape of the axle, and can often be told by the lug pattern on the wheels – 5 lugs usually means 3,500 lbs and 6 lugs 5,000, but the safest way to find out is to look on the axle itself for a label or a stamp with the mfr info. You also want to know what kind of suspension the axles have – traditional steel leaf springs, or Torq-type axles, which contain rubber and will age and crack as all rubber does, but bounce better while they last. I don’t know of any commercial trailers I looked at that had Torq axles, so probably not something to worry about. There are also drop axles, which generally allow the deck to be lowered by 4″, but interfere with maximizing the space between wheel wells, and give you less clearance under your house but more height to work with.
Style – There are flatbed utility trailers that have the deck mounted between the wheel wells, or over them, some with dove tails on the back. There are also used RV trailers that have had the upper parts removed that you can sometimes find or salvage, or custom trailers made just for tiny houses!
Flatbed utility – If you get the utility type mounted between wheel wells, you either have to contend with framing in the wells that stick out from your walls internally, or having a house that is very narrow built between the wells, but you get more head room for a loft if you want it (remember, 13’6″ for road height).
Over-the-wheels decked trailers – The over-the-wheels flatbeds are easier to frame in and nice and wide, but you lose a ton of head room so you might have to compensate by having a longer trailer. More air movement under the house could also cause excessive cooling if you live in a cool climate, but might be good for a hot one.
Dovetailed trailers are a pain, but you can use them if you’ve got the patience and time to frame them.
Used RV frames might work, but they are often heavily rusted and you would have to check out the condition of the axles/wheels and the weight rating. They don’t always have heavy duty axles suitable for a heavy tiny house. Interested in salvaging an old RV for a trailer? See Zyl’s post on the tinyhouseblog: http://tinyhouseblog.com/tiny-house-concept/recycling-old-rv-trailers/. He gave a really realistic table of the costs and benefits.
Custom tiny house trailer – Awesome. We originally bought a regular 10k 18′ utility trailer, but after reading Go House Go and visiting all the people we could living in tiny houses, we decided the drop deck style with extended cross members was the best idea. That way, you get the benefits of the over-the-wheels deck stability with the preserved head room of the typical flatbed.
– Electric lights, electric brakes, and an emergency breakaway kit. Just because it has electric lights does not mean it has electric brakes. The emergency breakaway kit is a tiny battery with a mechanism that is wired into your existing axle brakes. The mechanism has a cable which you attach to your vehicle just like the chains. If your dear little house should ever come unhitched while being towed, come unplugged, and the chains break, it will trip the little mechanism when the cable is pulled, and engage your trailer’s brakes for you, so you don’t have a runaway tiny house going too far. Really important, don’t you think? You can buy the kits online, or if you are lucky enough to have a trailer company that specializes in tiny house or heavy trailers, they might come stock or install it for you.
–Look for quality. Do the welds look like crap? Don’t buy it. How about the electrical system? Does the electrical harness look sketchy? Does it work? Is the trailer frame made out of I beam, C channel, or box beams? (in order of quality and strength). How far apart are the cross-members? Fewer is better for keeping the trailer light, but closer together is better if you want to carry more weight. Usually you want them no farther than 24″ apart, but 16″ o.c. is overkill. Is the electrical system safely tucked into the trailer frame, or is it flopping around to get torn loose and run over? Do the tires look worn or old? Is it rusted? If it is, is it surface rust you can remove and paint over, or do you have structural damage? Does it have a warranty so if you have problems you can get help? Does it have a grease system that is easy to use so you’ll maintain your axle bearings properly? Also, is it registered? Is the title clear of problems (e.g. is the current seller’s name the last one listed on the title? If not, be afraid!)
What You Don’t Need:
– Railings of any kind above the decking, “sticker pockets”, ramps, or full decking (you may save some of the boards to use in your subfloor and bottom plates if you don’t mind the horrific chemicals in pressure treated wood, or if you were lucky enough to get a cedar deck)
For reference, our trailer is a dual axle HD 10k, which means each axle can carry 5,000 lbs, for a total of 10,000 lbs weight. In Oregon, anything over 8,000 lbs is considered a “heavy trailer” and must be registered as such. The trailer guy we bought ours from said over 10,000 lbs you need a special permit – I don’t know if that is for all states or just Oregon, so check with your Dept of Motor Vehicles. Our trailer itself weighs around 1,430 lbs, which leaves us with around 8,570 lbs of house/stuff weight to work with. It came with an emergency breakaway kit, squared off wheel wells for easier framing, maximized space between the wells and a maxed-out road width of 8’6″. The best part for us is that the cross-members, or the welded joists between the framing, are actually welded below the frame, so that we can have a nice insulated floor that is 6″ thick without losing all the head room, and the cross members extend out flush with the wheel wells, so our walls are weight bearing on steel, not the suspended subfloor built on top of the trailer frame like in the Tumbleweed designs.
A word about cost:
DO NOT SCRIMP ON YOUR TRAILER. Really. We are not made of money either, so believe us. We bought as much as we could secondhand, but the trailer is where you should splurge, and it should be the biggest expenditure you make on your tiny house. If you buy a crummy trailer, you will worry about your house forevermore, especially when moving it, even more so if you don’t/can’t get insurance on it. Save up and buy the best trailer you can. You can always upgrade your appliances or your furniture or even your windows but you can do little to improve your trailer once it is built. We were stupid, and learned the hard way. Learn from us. We really liked Iron Eagle Trailers, if you want a place to start, as they do really high quality work and they went the extra mile for us. The cost was worth every dime.
Hope this helps you as you ponder buying new or purchasing that Craigslist gem!