Strategic pauses and such: an October recap


Last month, I promised more regular updates on my progress: weekly posts on design decisions and milestones met, detailed drawings and Matchbox musings. Alas, I have once again failed to make a habit out of using this blog to chronicle my tiny home build.

So once more, let's catch up on what has changed over the past few weeks. When I last wrote, the Matchbox had just been stood up. It had walls, and a plywood roof, and some window cutouts: in effect, the skeleton of a tiny house. But there was still quite a bit to do to get the home dried in and protected from the elements. For one, it needed housewrap.

Day 17: Turning the Matchbox into a 20-foot-long Tyvek billboard

Housewrap isn’t the prettiest invention known to man, but it’s a fairly integral component of any self-respecting construction project. Basically, housewrap (most commonly sold by Tyvek as HomeWrap) is an impermeable layer intended to protect one’s walls from any moisture that may creep in through the siding. It’s a thin, paper-like material, but quite tough: it’ll take a sharp knife to slice through even the thinnest layer of housewrap.

The HomeWrap sits between the exterior plywood walls and the siding, and thus needs to be installed prior to cladding the structure. So on a particularly beautiful Saturday in late September, some friends came over to Boneyard Studios to help roll out a nine-foot pillar of siding onto the Matchbox (many thanks to Kevin, Dan, Margaret, and Ryan for their help on this, and to Brooke for tending to the garden while we worked).

Putting the HomeWrap on smoothly required a bit of care, a box of staples, and just about an hour of work.

Having successfully clothed the house, we then turned to windows—first cutting holes in the HomeWrap where the windows were framed, then installing window wrap around said frames, and finally screwing the actual windows into the house, with the assistance of easy-to-attach fins that came with the JELD-WEN windows. Excluding the skylight and the small panes on the door, the Matchbox has five fairly sizeable windows: four five-feet-wide-by-three-feet-fall ones in the main area, and then a slender double-hung beauty, about twenty-inches-wide-by-six-feet-tall, toward the back of the house.

Hours: 8
Hours to date: 172

Day 18: Waterproofing the roof with EPDM rubber

Building a flat roof is, I’m told, a recipe for disaster. When it comes to construction, water is the devil, always eager to slither about in any nook or cranny it can find. And so, prudence dictates that one should aim to exorcise water from their dwelling as quickly as possible—namely, with a steeply-pitched roof that dumps water onto the ground (or into a gutter) before it has time to cause any trouble. But with a flat (or nearly flat) roof, pesky H2O molecules can meander about a bit more lazily—in the case of my house, taking a pit-stop near the skylight or rappelling down the back of my vertical siding—with nothing but a slight two-degree pitch coaxing water droplets toward the gutter at the home's front. So when waterproofing my roof, I needed to use an impermeable barrier that would keep things dry, and reliably so.

HomeWrap stapled to the sides; EPDM glued to the top.
After a bit of research, I determined that rubber—ethylene propylene diene monomer (EPDM) in roofspeak—was the way to go: it comes in a variety of hefty sizes (I went with a ten-foot-by-thirty-foot roll to eliminate the need for seams), it’s easy to apply (between Tony and me, the job took just a few hours), it does a good job of insulating the roof, and most importantly, its 45-millimeter thickness ensures that no water will seep through it. I ordered my materials (in addition to the roll, I needed a few gallons of latex adhesive, along with some caulk and primer for the flashing around the skylight) from Flat Roof Solutions, a friendly vendor with helpful staff willing to talk me through the basics of EPDM installation (thanks Tim!).

Applying the roof membrane was, indeed, a breeze. After lugging the heavy roll onto the roof, we applied some adhesive to the roof’s right half with a paint roller, then did the same to the right side of the EPDM roll. We then lifted and carefully dropped the rubber onto the plywood, and smoothed out wrinkles by going over that right half with a (new and clean) roller. After giving the right side a few minutes to adhere to the plywood, we then rolled over the left flap and repeated the process for the left side of the roof. Getting the EPDM to stick right to the edge of the wood was a bit tricky, but for the time being, we just let the excess foot-or-so of EPDM hang off of each side of the house. We then spent some time cutting a hole for the skylight (having already framed it out, this hole just had to be cut through the rubber), and finally wrapped up the day by dropping the skylight onto its custom-built curb.

Hours: 10
Hours to date: 182

The Matchbox's interior, with loft, skylight, and taped-off floor plan.
Day 19: Building the loft

The nineteenth day of Matchbox construction began with a trip to Hyattsville—always a sincere treat—to pick up some steel tubing from the Missco steel mill. After weeks months of agonizing over the appropriate trade-off between space above and beneath the loft, Justin proposed a neat solution that would make that decision just a few inches easier to live with—that is, building the loft with two-inch steel beams instead of conventional (three-and-a-half-inch) two-by-fours. While steel beams are certainly heavier, more expensive, and more difficult to work with than a handful of wood boards, they are significantly stronger—allowing the loft to support quite a bit more weight—and most importantly, grant the tiny home dweller another two inches of headroom in either the loft or under-the-loft area (which, given the thirteen-and-a-half-foot legal limit for tiny homes on wheels, is a valuable savings).

So off to Missco it was, to have five two-inch steel tubes (with a quarter-inch gauge, for those interested) cut. Unfortunately, commercial steel is messy business: these tubes were coated with a greasy rust protector that left sooty streaks wherever the steel touched. To protect my pristine, newly-acquired loft decking from such streaks, I picked up about a half-dozen cans of Kilz primer and sprayed them down with the rattle-cans, giving the beams a clean white finish (technically this isn’t a finish, as I’ll likely paint them later—either true white or a complementary accent color). Then Tony and I got to work installing them: drilling each into the loft plate with some self-tapping screws, then throwing the decking (a high-quality plywood) on top.

Hours: 6
Hours to date: 188

Day 19 ½: A moment of appreciation

Before I had designed the first square inch of the Matchbox, before my pencil ever touched my sketchpad, I knew that I wanted a skylight above my loft. I passionately and uncompromisingly wanted a window to the sky—to the stars and the clouds—and I knew that regardless of what shape my tiny home took, I would do whatever I could to ensure that this one element of my home was put into place. And surely enough, there were moments during construction when that skylight was precipitously close to being nixed: difficulty in finding a suitable model, concerns over the roof’s structural integrity, doubts about the sanity of creating a four-foot-wide opening on a flat roof.

An example of the magnificent microfauna at Boneyard Studios.
But fortunately, we found ways to overcome each hurdle, and as day 19 drew to a close, my skylight and my loft were finally ready to be used. And so the following day—a balmy Sunday with fluffy cumulus clouds sprinkled across a pale blue sky—I put on some music, climbed into the loft, and spent more than three hours looking up at the skylight, just watching clouds go by.

I’m including this in my overall build tally because, frivolous or inconsequential as it may sound, a moment of appreciation is an absolutely necessary step in building a tiny home oneself. Yes, I’m enjoying this project immensely, and I look forward to my next build each and every day, but truthfully, it’s excruciatingly hard work. It’s exhausting, it’s stressful, and when certain steps take too long or certain things just don’t go the way one plans, it’s inescapably disheartening. Building a tiny home requires one to devote significant time, money, and most importantly, sheer energy to the pursuit, and as such, there’s a lot of pressure to have it all come out just right.

I found this moment of appreciation to be tremendously helpful: it marked, in some ways, a halfway point. It demonstrated that this crazy idea I had cooked up months earlier had been achieved—If only one key element for the time being—that all of the hard work to this point had, indeed, paid off.

And so, to those just starting a tiny home build, or contemplating one for the future, I’d recommend crafting that milestone, identifying that marker that will meet you about halfway through the build and encourage you to keep moving forward. It doesn’t have to be anything particularly special—maybe the first cup of tea in a fully-closed-in structure, or the first evening spent hanging out on that recently-framed-out porch, or the first time hanging clothes out on a tiny home clothesline. But figure out what that marker is before you start building, and when you reach it, relish it, appreciate it, be grateful for it. Spend a few hours to take it all in. Relax, rejuvenate, reorient. Then, as they (I’m not entirely sure whom they is) say, keep calm and carry on.

Hours: 3
Hours to date: 191

Day 20ish: A mish-mash of things completed during a spontaneous strategic pause

Having fully dried-in the house (that is, protect it from the elements), I realized that I wasn’t exactly ready to, well, carry on. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do about siding, I hadn’t yet drawn the plans for my porch and rain catchment system, I hadn’t ordered my water tanks or plumbing equipment or solar panels, I had no idea where my electrical outlets were to be placed—in sum, I needed to do a bit of thinking and planning and sketching before I did more of the hammering and screwing and drilling.

This strategic pause caught me during a busy few weeks of non-tiny-home-filled work and leisure, so I’ve spent the majority of October, for better or worse, just figuring out what my next steps will be. I did make some small concrete progress on the home—finding an electrician to wire the outlets, for example, or getting a quote for blow-in insulation—but for the most part, early October progress has been confined to my Moleskine. The bad news is that these were a few weeks of ideal building weather in which I wasn’t really building; the good news is that I’ve used that time to resolve my lingering ambivalence and make some well-researched decisions on a number of fronts. Summarily:

  • Truly off-the-grid and seriously carbon-neutral. I’ve always aimed to make my tiny home as environmentally-friendly as possible, but after a few weeks of soul-searching and feasibility-finding, I’ve committed to making the Matchbox genuinely passive. By going with all-electrical appliances, planning for a solar array, using a waterless toilet, reusing greywater to hydrate the garden, and relying on compostable goods, the house will have a zero-waste output and won’t be tethered to any city utilities. And with a rain catchment system that will reuse the thirty-plus-gallons-per-month of rainwater to power the half-gallon-per-minute shower, the only thing the Matchbox will need in terms of external resources is about ten or twenty gallons of tapwater per month from the Boneyard Studios cistern.

  • Buying 200+ siding boards and burning them all. Torching perfectly useable siding might seem like the least carbon-neutral thing one could do, but it’s actually a vital and non-wasteful step of an old Japanese tradition known as shou sugi ban—that is, the burning of a cypress or cedar (I’ll be using red cedar) to create a truly unique and natural siding solution that is rot-, insect-, and (paradoxically or perhaps not-so-paradoxically) fire-resistant.

  • An awning and a rain catchment system wrapped into one. Gutters don’t have to be ugly, but they usually are. In order to ensure that my rain catchment system doesn’t come at the cost of aesthetics, I’ve designed a hidden drainage solution that will funnel water through the porch’s support beams and underneath the trailer to the back of the house in a seamless and entirely hidden fashion.

  • Earthen plaster on the walls. Though bead board and traditional Tumbleweed pine both make excellent options for internal wall treatment, I’ve decided to go with adobe plaster instead. In addition to its beautiful natural look and sustainable production methods, this earthen plaster does a great job of absorbing and releasing excess moisture and condensation—very important for a small space in a humid climate.

  • A (revised) color scheme! Light grey walls, white trim and white furniture, dark wood floors, and green fabrics for a warm, inviting, earthy ambience.

  • Lots of floorplan changes. They’ll probably keep changing, so I’ll get to these later.

Rather than explain each of these more in-depth, I’m going to cut this already-lengthy post (aren’t they all?) short and get to these, in turn, over the next several weeks.  In the meantime: thoughts, questions, comments? Interest in helping out with building? Let me know!

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