This summer, I will build a tiny house

6.02.2012


Hey there, friend and/or fellow tiny house enthusiast! This summer, I'll be building a small home in Washington, DC. I know how daunting the idea of building one's own tiny home can be, so my hope is to (in addition to keeping friends up-to-date on my adventure) make this blog as useful as possible to others who are considering venturing down that path. Over the next few months, I'll be using this site to share my designs, my research, and my lessons learned; feel free to use the comments section at the end of each post to ask questions, offer opinions, or simply provided some (much-needed) encouragement.

I figured I'd use this first post to provide a bit of context around my journey, so here's a (rather lengthy) who-what-where-when-why-how with all of the details.

WHO:

My name's Jay. I came to DC about three years ago to attend grad school at Georgetown University, and ended up sticking around to serve as Presidential Management Fellow at the US Department of Housing & Urban Development, where I currently work (on issues, alas, not related to tiny urban housing).

Having grown up in a mix of very small homes, very large homes, and a few in-between homes, I came to realize that greater space doesn't always (if ever) equate with greater happiness. From an early age, I found myself very drawn to the idea of minimalist living: of finding a dwelling to suit one's life, not finding a life to suit one's dwelling. This notion has manifested itself in a variety of appealing-but-yet-unrealized forms of tiny living, ranging from sailboat to RV, from houseboat to shipping container home, and ultimately, to the house-on-wheels that I'll be building this summer. Beyond my obsession with tiny houses, I'm very interested in photography, film, biking, hiking, running, camping, traveling, and reading. I'm also interested in, you know, having fascinating conversations with fascinating people. So if you're a fascinating person, please feel free to shoot me an email or something.

WHAT:

A tiny house. More specifically, a dwelling with four walls, a 6.5' x 18' interior, and all of life's necessary amenities. It'll have seating for at least seven, an awesome loft with a retractable skylight, lots of big open windows, a green roof, an open kitchen, and a greywater management system that will reduce the house's carbon footprint to virtually nothing. Tons more details to come.

I'll be calling my tiny home "the Matchbox," a name I stumbled upon during the design of my tiny home logo. In a future post, I'll go into more detail about the story behind the name and the logo, but in the meantime, the design I settled on is over to the right.

WHERE:

With several awesome folks at Boneyard Studios, a brand new tiny home community in the District. This summer, I'll be joining Brian, Lee, Tony, and Gabby in creating what may very well be the nation's first urban tiny home community on a small but more-than-adequate site that will house our four tiny homes, a community garden, shared outdoor space, and a shipping container to house our tools and bikes. (For a communal journal of our tiny house adventures, check out the Boneyard Studios blog.)

WHEN:

This summer! Nebulous planning for my tiny home began in February, back before I had a place to put it, the knowledge needed to move forward, and a community of fellow tiny home enthusiasts to overcome obstacles and share best practices with. Fortunately, my good friend Tiffany happened to hear about Boneyard Studios from a friend-of-a-friend, and after a few weeks of chatting with Brian and the Boneyard team, they graciously offered me a spot on their presently-empty-but-oh-so-promising lot.

From there, I kicked my planning and designing into high gear, spending countless hours sketching and staring at draft floor plans, researching the variety of ways one could dispose of human waste (more on this in blog posts to come, I promise), and getting lots of valuable feedback from friends and acquaintances. By April, I was so eager to move into the tiny home that was shaping up so well on paper that I purged my apartment of all unnecessary belongings and cordoned off my various living spaces (shower, desk, kitchen, etc.) with masking tape demarcating the dimensions those same living spaces will have once the home is built.

In May, I finalized my floor plans, marveled at the progress Brian and Tony made on the Boneyard lot, and continued to procrastinate in starting this blog. I made the first crucial investment in the project--purchasing a custom-built 8' x 22' trailer from the good folks at Kaufman Trailers, and sat in eager anticipation of its imminent delivery. Just last week, said trailer arrived (I'll be posting more about this soon), and within the next few weeks, I aim to begin constructing the framing and flooring of the home. I'm hoping to have all exterior work completed by the end of July and all interior work done by the end of August, striving to have the home ultimately completed by Labor Day.

WHY:

“Make a radical change in your lifestyle and begin to boldly do things which you may previously never have thought of doing, or been too hesitant to attempt. So many people live within unhappy circumstances and yet will not take the initiative to change their situation because they are conditioned to a life of security, conformity, and conservation, all of which may appear to give one peace of mind, but in reality nothing is more damaging to the adventurous spirit within a man than a secure future. The very basic core of a man's living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun. If you want to get more out of life, you must lose your inclination for monotonous security and adopt a helter-skelter style of life that will at first appear to you to be crazy. But once you become accustomed to such a life you will see its full meaning and its incredible beauty.”
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

In chatting about tiny homes with others, this is the one question I receive more than any other. And it's a question I don't really have a simple answer to, so instead, please accept the following, very long-winded response, ranked in order of increasing personal importance:

Affordability

Money costs too much. And at the beginning of the millennium, in this country, the cost of money is well on the way to bankrupting us. We’re impoverishing ourselves, our families, our communities–and yet we can’t stop our­selves. ― Mark Slouka, "Quitting the Paint Factory"

There was formerly a capacity for light-heartedness and play which has been to some extent inhibited by the cult of efficiency. The modern man thinks that everything ought to be done for the sake of something else, and never for its own sake.―Bertrand Russell, "In Praise of Idleness"

As former New York gubernatorial candidate Jimmy McMillan so eloquently put it, "the rent is too damn high." That is, the cost of shelter, what I (and many others) would consider a basic human right, is growing less attainable and less reasonable each and every year. I currently pay $1,200 for a studio apartment, and though the apartment is spacious, has a wonderful outdoor patio area (a luxury in the District), is in a location that's convenient to my office and public transportation, and is owned by a great landlord, the idea of spending almost $15,000 per year for a basic sheltera shelter I can't even modify to my likingis a very unappealing notion.

Of course, an alternative to the poor investment of renting a home is the allegedly-good investment of buying a home. Unfortunately, houses in and around the District cost hundreds of thousands of dollars at a minimum, with many rather small homes in neighborhoods like Georgetown selling for $4 or $5 million. And because very few individuals can afford to buy a home outright, most surrender themselves to a thirty-year mortgage that will keep them locked downto their location, to a stable-yet-unfulfilling job, to an unhealthy world of financial stressorsfor the great majority of their adult lives.

Tiny homes, by contrast, are absurdly affordable. Land aside (more on this in a future post), the materials needed to build and furnish a tiny home range from just $10,000 to $20,000, and for those nervous about being their own builder, a high-quality tiny home can be bought from the professionals for under $50,000.

The greatest economic advantage to tiny living is a high (perhaps limitless) degree of financial freedom. Once the home is built and a land situation is settled, one's cost of shelter drops to virtually $0. And for tiny homes built with self-sufficiency in mind (with features such as a water retention system, solar panels, and garden space to grow one's own food), the cost of utilities and nourishment can be significantly impacted as well.

So what does one do with all of this financial freedom? Stop worrying about rent. Stop worrying about bills. Stop worrying about money. Give to charity. Switch to part-time work. Quit working altogether. Enjoy leisure. Relax. Travel. Bike across the country. Walk across the country. Walk 500 miles to learn something new, or walk 500 miles, then walk 500 more. Hike the Appalachian Trail. Read. Volunteer. Teach others. Grow things. Build things. Make things. Live.

Mobility

“For my part, I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move; to feel the needs and hitches of our life more nearly; to come down off this featherbed of civilization, and find the globe granite underfoot and strewn with cutting flints.” Robert Louis Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

“A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” – Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

I like DC. It's a lively, green, progressive, young city with lots to offer. I imagine I'll stay in DC for quite a while, to one degree or another. But I don't want to spend the rest of my life in the District, and I don't want to finally settle into a home only to have to leave it for another city, another state, another country, shortly thereafter. With conventional homes, alas, this is the way it goes.

A Tumbleweed tiny house on the open road.
A tiny home resident, however, has the luxury of mobility. Due to some impractical legislation passed in the 1970s, pushed by banks and builders who realized that more home meant more to sell, most states and municipalities have outlawed homes smaller than a certain size. Tiny homes, which average about 130 square feet, fall fairly universally into this prohibited size category. In order to circumvent such burdensome rules, most tiny homes are built on utility trailers, thereby disqualifying those structures from being considered houses and consequently freeing tiny home builders from the accompanying coding and zoning and sizing requirements of the state.

So though the decision to build on a trailer is not always a voluntary choice, and comes with added expense and a few design constraints, it provides one the opportunity to move his or her homerooms, belongings, and allfrom place to place, destination to destination. And though hauling a tiny home isn't the easiest of tasks (even moving an empty trailer requires a hefty Uhaul and a bit of courage on the road), it's certainly less of a hassle than selling a home and finding a new one and hiring movers and packing belongings and loading boxes and unloading boxes and unpacking belongings and starting life, at least spatially, totally anew.

I don't plan to leave DC too soon, but when I do, I intend to take my home with me, not pack a single moving box, and never feel like my shelter is an anchor weighing me down to one particular space or place.

Sustainability

“Nothing is more important to human beings than an ecologically functioning, life sustaining biosphere on the Earth. It is the only habitable place we know of in a forbidding universe. We all depend on it to live and we are compelled to share it; it is our only home. The Earth’s biosphere seems almost magically suited to human beings and indeed it is, for we evolved through eons of intimate immersion within it. We cannot live long or well without a functioning biosphere, and so it is worth everything we have.” Joseph Guth, The Story of Stuff [by Annie Leonard]

One of the first and most generally acknowledged conditions of happiness is a life which does not break the link between man and nature, a life in the open air, and in the light of the sun. It involves an intimate connection with the earth, with its plants and animals. Yet look at the life of a worldly man. The greater their success, the farther are they from these conditions of happiness; the greater their worldly happiness, the less they see of the sun, of the fields, and of the woods.Leo Tolstoy, My Religion: What I Believe

Our biosphere is a unique and beautiful and incredibly precious entity, and though it won't be around forever, I'd like to do my part to preserve it for as long as we can. Tiny living is simple living, and simple living is harmonious living. Here are a few ways I'm aiming to enhance the harmony between my home and the planet:

  • A small space: Small spaces are inherently more sustainable than larger ones because they require fewer materials to build, less energy to produce and ship those materials, and fewer resources to heat and cool the space. At roughly 120 square feet, and with several large windows throughout the home, my house should be able to regulate temperatures without putting too much of a strain on our limited sources of energy. And when it does require energy (for temperature, lighting, and the various other luxuries of modern life) ...
  • Freshwater retention: Freshwater is a vital yet progressively endangered resource, so to the extent possible, I intend to reduce my reliance on water distribution services and instead capitalize on the free and natural helpings of freshwater we all receive on a regular basis: rain. Through a green roof and a gutter system that will feed into a modest water retention container, I'll make use of whatever rain falls upon the house before relying on the city's supply. And once that water is used ...
  • Greywater reuse: ... it'll be reused through a greywater management system. Greywater is water that has been used mildly in a domestic setting: think the many gallons that wash down the drain during a shower or the torrents that snake down the sink's plumbing while doing dishes. Typically, this water is sent to a water filtration plant where it's treated with hazardous chemicals in a resource-intensive process designed to clean the water for reuse, while at the same time, gallons and gallons of other freshwater are used to hydrate the lawn. What my greywater management system will do is reuse the former water for the latter purpose: that is, collect "waste" water from the shower and sink to water the ...
  • A green roof: ... vegetables, fruits, and herbs growing on the roof! With the sunlight and warm temperatures DC enjoys, I see no reason not to use a good deal of my roof space for a bit of gardening. Growing one's own food comes with the obvious economic benefit of, well, not having to buy food (along with a shorter commute to get food, as fresh produce will be just a few steps away from the kitchen), but with immeasurable environmental benefits related to reducing reliance on the energy-heavy process of planting, watering, growing, harvesting, packaging, distributing, and selling the food found in supermarkets. As for the scraps from my home-grown foods ...
  • A compost bin: ... they'll be dumped into a compost bin that will break down just about any organic substance, limit the amount of waste sent to landfills, and produce nutrient-rich soil that will be brought back to the roof to grow even more food.

Sustainable living certainly comes with tradeoffs: I'll be sacrificing a washer and dryer for a clothesline, an oven for a standalone stovetop, gas appliances for all-electric ones, a refrigerator for a diet of food that doesn't need to be kept cold (a vegan lifestyle, admittedly, helps with this), and the relative convenience of conventional flush plumbing, but the benefits of a simpler way of life, more time outdoors, and a healthier earth seem well worth it.

Simplicity

“Minimalism is not a lack of something, it’s simply the perfect amount of something.” ― Nicholas Burroughs, Design School Dropout

"I had three pieces of limestone on my desk, but I was terrified to find that they required to be dusted daily, when the furniture of my mind was all undusted still, and threw them out the window in disgust." ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods


"I have lived through much, and now I think I have found what is needed for happiness. A quiet secluded life in the country, with the possibility of being useful to people to whom it is easy to do good, and who are not accustomed to have it done to them; then work which one hopes may be of some use; then rest, nature, books, music, love for one's neighborsuch is my idea of happiness. And then, on top of all that ... a mate, and children, perhaps; what more can the heart of a man desire?" ― Leo Tolstoy, Family Happiness

My primary reason for building this home is that, simply put, I want to live simply. I want to limit my distractions and pursue my passions and devote my time to what really matters: kindness, leisure, friendship, companionship. Living in a structure that has just what's needed, and nothing more, seems an ideal physical manifestation of that pursuit.

I often hesitate to call this movement, or these dwellings, tiny houses, because objectively, they're not tiny. Homes of 120 square feet, when designed correctly, offer a great deal of space: enough for one to curl up on the couch with a great book, enough to sit in bed and experience the wonder of an excellent film, enough to cook and share and enjoy a delicious dinner and a wonderful conversation with a loved one or a new friend. It's enough to get work done at a desk with a widescreen computer, enough to pursue the art of agriculture, enough to store all of the equipment necessary for a weekend camping trip or a week of phototourism in a faraway destination. It's enough to lie in bed beneath a skylight that serves as a window to the stars, enough to marvel at the sheer expanse of the cosmos. It's enough to contain rest, nature, books, music, and love all under (or on) one roof; it's enough, I think, for any attainable degree of happiness. What more can the heart of a man desire?

Thoreau's cabin at Walden Pond.
I've always been interested in minimalism, but it wasn't until reading Thoreau's (life-changing) classic, Walden, that I set out on my current quest for absolute simplicity and deliberate living. My first step in that direction was embarking on a "100 Thing Challenge": an attempt to downsize one's worldly possessions to fewer than 100 items. I'll be writing more about this in a future post (in addition to publishing my own oft-requested list), but for now, I'll just say that this downsizing enabled me to realize that attaining peace of mind requires very little in terms of physical objects. Rather than grow my belongings to fill the size of my apartment, as I and most others do upon arriving in a new residence, I found myself shrinking in relation to my living area: my space had grown too large for me. At that point, I decided, I needed something smaller. I needed a tiny home.

HOW:

“There is some of the same fitness in a man's building his own house that there is in a bird's building its own nest. Who knows but if men constructed their dwellings with their own hands, and provided food for themselves and families simply and honestly enough, the poetic faculty would be universally developed, as birds universally sing when they are so engaged? But alas! We do like cowbirds and cuckoos, which lay their eggs in nests which other birds have built, and cheer no traveler with their chattering and unmusical notes. Shall we forever resign the pleasure of construction to the carpenter?” ― Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods

I'm immensely excited to soon be living in my tiny home, but I'm equally excited by the prospect of building it myself: of learning the ins and outs of construction and carpentry and taking pride in the finished product, a product built with my own hands.

That being said, my expertise in construction is limited to a rather hideous compost bin that currently rests in my backyard, so I'll likely need some guidance along the way if I want this home to (a) look nice and (b) not collapse. Fortunately, Lee's builder friend Tony flew in from California for the summer to help Lee construct her home, and Tony has kindly offered to provide some of that much-needed guidance. I'll also be welcoming assistance from friends with any construction, carpentry, electrical, plumbing, gardening, or design experience, or even those who just want to help out and be a part of this little build (if that sounds like you, let me know!)



If you've made it to the bottom of this post (and read all the way through), thanks for the interest and support! Again, I'm hoping that this site will serve as a resource for other tiny home builders (or those considering making the leap), so if you have any questions, please leave them in the comments section of any post, or send me an email and I'll get back to you right away.

Let the building begin!

:)

7 comments:

  1. Can't wait to see more! I demand photos!

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    1. Ashley, there will be many, many photos, I promise. I'll be keeping the full collection here (there are already a few from the trailer move), and be posting them to the blog once I get started on step-specific topics. Thanks for the interest!

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  2. Jay, what is the relationship between the trailer and the tiny home? Are you living in the trailer while you build the tiny home? Or are you using parts of the trailer for the tiny home?

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    1. Margaret, that's a great question; I realize I didn't really explain what the trailer was all that well. The trailer it's built on is actually just a utility trailer: that is, just a trailer bed (with, actually, no decking on it). Here's a photo of Brian's and my trailers . The flooring is actually built right on top of the trailer base, then secured to the trailer itself, so the trailer becomes the permanent foundation of the house (although, I suppose, the house could be removed from the trailer down the line). But yes, the type of trailer we'll be building on is very different than what you're thinking of--as just a flat object with wheels, there'd be no way to live in it.

      I'll be posting a trailer-specific entry within the next week or so that should have some more details on what the trailer is and how it'll fit in to the overall design. Thanks for reading!

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    2. Jay, When I thought about it more, I realized that must be the case. Thanks for the explanation.

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  3. I'm curious about the kitchen; cooking utensils and appliances and so on are a huge drain on storage space. How much room in the kitchen? Do you have specialized storage areas, as in boats? I could live without books now that I have my kindle, but what sorts of things did you purge? I am fascinated. I have thought about getting one just for a design studio for my sewing, but that's just a fantasy...
    PS> I am a friend of Margaret's.

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    1. Thanks for all of your interest, friend-of-Margaret's! As for the kitchen and storage space, I posted a new entry yesterday providing a bit more detail about what the house will actually contain . I'm an ebook reader myself (tablet, actually), so yes, books didn't survive the purge.

      I'm going to aim to get my "100 Thing" post online by next week; this will talk about the purging process and include a list of all the possessions I'll be bringing with me into my tiny home. If you're following the blog, look for it soon.

      And hey, this was just a fantasy of mine until very recently, so if a tiny design studio for sewing is what you desire, I say go for it!

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