Boneyard Studios featured in the Washington Post


Part of the Boneyard Studios mission is to showcase tiny homesand the idea of a tiny home communityto the widest possible audience. So we were thrilled to have the opportunity to speak to Emily Wax from the Washington Post earlier this month to do just that.

Emily's well-researched article, "Home, squeezed home: Living in a 200-square-foot space" was in Wednesday's paper, getting tons of attention online and making it to the front page of the WaPo site, and becoming the site's most popular story, by late morning.

The Post did a great job of addressing the tiny home movement from all angles, but I should note that although a large focus of the article relates to tiny homes as a means affordable housing, what we're doing at Boneyard Studios is a different type of affordable housing. I'm not building a tiny home because I'm one of the "underemployed, credit-crisis kids who know they will probably never achieve the Mad Men-era American ideal of a one-income family with a large house in the suburbs, two kids, and two cars," but because that American ideal isn't desirable to me. In other words, it's about voluntary simplicity, not forced downsizing.

And a few factual corrections: saving for the Matchbox was a two-year journey, and the luxury of mobility allows me to move, if I so desire, for the wonder of another terrain, not for the necessity of another job.

Aforementioned aside, Emily did a terrific job synthesizing a broad topic into a digestible article, so I'm glad we had the opportunity to get our story out there and bring tiny homes to the District's leading paper.

Boneyard Studios in the Washington Post!

And, of course, with good press comes good commentshere are are a few of my favorites thus far:

The good:

The bad:
  • Haikuist: Pretentious hipsters / Serving up 'enlightment' / Starbucks on the side.
  • Zippyseed: The article even says that one of these guys works for HUD. We can hope for the best, but don't be surprised if "crack shack" enters the vernacular.

The ugly:
  • Pechins: Is this the Agenda 21 life in the future under Pharaoh Obama? Hmm?
  • Grtshldrs: Block the communist revolution in America that is forcing millions of families into shacks.
  • RedskinsFan2: Will these dressed-up closets be the new McMansions in Obamaville?
  • Restonhoops: Sounds like Obamaville to me.
  • TheATLMac: People forced to live in 200-square-foot shacks. Yep, that's an accurate analogy for where Obama has taken America.
  • Defund_NPR: So this is what Obama meant by "forward." Frigging shacks!
  • SevenSuns: This seems a bit like Soviet-era Russia.
  • Kajun: I imagine King Obama gets teary-eyed by this: his dream of how all of his subjects should live can now be reality.
  • SouthBronx1: My God, you Leftists are sheep ...
  • Redsquare: Sexist pig.


Starting siding: the rain screen and some preliminary torching


For the past few months, the Matchbox
has been covered in a sheet of housewrap: necessary to keep the wood safe from the elements, but not the most attractive option, even short-term.

Fortunately, siding for the tiny home is only a few weeks away, and much of November has been spent getting it ready for this next phase of construction. First up: the rain screen.

Day 21: Starting the rain screen

As mentioned previously, moisture and wood don't get along very well. As such, the dominant siding technique for the past century has been to press the siding material (be it wood, vinyl, or whatever) as closely as possible to the exterior wall, preventing water from getting between the two. Certainly, this approach makes good sense, and if done right, will keep a home's walls nice and dry for decades. The problem, however, is that no matter how good a builder is, or how waterproofed walls may be, water will inevitablyif only in small amountsfind its way between the siding and the walls. And when this happens, it'll sit there with nowhere to go, idly working its way through the housewrap and eventually rotting the wood within.

And so in recent years, construction has begun to favor what are known as rain screens: air buffers between the wall (the part that gets housewrapped) and the siding, which allow moisture to drain and dry out if and when it does get back there. Lee and I, who are both building tiny homes with non-lapped wood siding boards (that is, the boards will be placed flat against the walls in a shiplap formation with small gaps between them, making the walls even more vulnerable to moisture getting in), shall be following this growing trend and opting for two different types of rain screen.

The core component of the rainscreen is the furring strip. A furring strip is simply a long (generally sold in eight-foot lengths), slender (about an inch and a half wide and three-quarters of an inch deep) piece of wood (available both untreated and pressure-treated, but to prevent rot, pressure-treated furring strips should be used for rain screen applications) that gets nailed to the house, each strip evenly spaced about sixteen to twenty-four inches apart. The siding boards, then, are screwed or nailed into the furring strips, not into the wall, effectively creating a space (the depth of the furring strip) for water to drain through.

Furring strips are ordinarily placed vertically, with siding placed perpendicular to that, which is what Lee will be doing for her super-cool, seamless siding-and-roofing design. For more on siding a tiny house with vertical furring strips and horizontal siding, check out this recent post from friend-of-Boneyard-Studios Zach Thomas, who is building a tiny home in Charleston, South Carolina.

Conversely, I've opted for vertical siding (and, consequently, horizontal furring strips), which complicates this whole rain screen business quite a bit. Whereas vertically-oriented strips allow moisture to drain between them, horizontal furring strips—if placed directly against the house, would simply trap draining water on the strip itself, negating the very purpose of the rain screen.

Spacers cut from furring strip scrap and nailed to house.
The strips, then, have to be set sufficiently off the wall to allow water to escape between them. One way to accomplish this would be to create a lattice—vertical strips nailed to the house and horizontal strips nailed to those vertical ones in a grid-like fashion—but this method produces a fair bit of waste (dozens of eight-foot-long vertical strips that serve no purpose other than to set their horizontal counterparts three-quarters of an inch off the wall). So after some thought and expert advice from architect extraordinaire Matt Battin, I chose to create spacers using furring strip scraps, reducing waste and ensuring that the back of the siding would have sufficient breathing room.

In terms of placement, the twelve-foot boards that I'll be using will need a fair amount of support, so each horizontal strip needed to be no more than two feet apart, with one at the very bottom of the wall and one at the very top. Averaging out the total height of the home for aesthetic purposes (the boards will be screwed and these screws should therefore be evenly spaced), I think I ended up with approximately 23.5 vertical inches between strips.

Furring strip, with some extra spacers due to splitting.
Installing the rain screen isn't a difficult task (a ladder, nail gun, and level are the only tools needed beyond the chopsaw), but given the length of each strip, nailing everything in on a level plane is much easier with a second person to hold the other side (many thanks to Lauren for her help on this while first starting out). It is, however, rather time-consuming, especially given the spacers' tendency to split in half if cut too short.

Hours: 8
Hours to date: 199

Currently about half the rain screen is attached to the house: nearly all of the left and front walls, with lots of work to be done on the other two sides. Getting the rain screen complete will be this week's priority, as the siding will be on its way very shortly. Speaking of which:

Day 21ish: Shou sugi ban!

In my last post, I briefly mentioned that my siding would be employing an ancient Japanese and Finnish technique known (by the former) as shou sugi ban—literally "charred cypress." Sugi* is done for a number of reasons: namely, it makes the boards [1] fire-resistant (the most combustible elements within the surface of the wood have already burned), [2] rot-resistant (the carbon barrier protects the wood from moisture), [3] insect-resistant (bugs, it seems, do not find char to be a hospitable nest), and [4] just really, really cool-looking (giving them a gorgeous silvery sheen that just can't be replicated by any other means).

So how does it work?
  1. Get the necessary equipment. The Japanese sugi by tying three boards together into a makeshift chimney and placing said chimney atop a charcoal fire, but nowadays, many simply pick up a blowtorch or flamethrower of some sort and burn the boards individually. I'll be trying out the latter method, and purchased a (surprisingly inexpensive) torch for this purpose. The torch runs off of propane, so one will need lots of that, along with a few five-gallon buckets of water (or a nearby hose), some wire brushes, and a few cans of Penofin, a transparent, all-natural Brazilian rosewood oil that gets used to seal the boards post-charring.
  2. Get the wood. Though the Japanese used cypress for their sugi, cedar is far more available in these parts, and from what I hear, it looks just as good (if not better). I'll be ordering my lumber this week: several hundred boards of western red cedar (which almost seem too beautiful to burn) from the local and family-owned Grasmick Lumber. When they arrive, they'll have to be cut to the necessary lengths (generally twelve feet, but shorter beneath and above the windows) and angles (particularly along the wheel wells).
  3. Burn it. Having done a few quick tests with some of Lee's scrap cedar, the torching process is rather fun and easy (though undoubtedly time-consuming in large amounts). The boards I tried charred very nicely, though they didn't actually catch fire in the way I expected (which I am certainly not complaining about). In any case, the wood needs to be burned about one-eighth-of-an-inch deep on the surface, then the edges will need some charring as well.
  4. Wash, rinse, repeat. Soot is messy, so after burning the wood, I'll need to wash the boards with water and a rag (and, if rough char is present, a wire brush as well). The washing will allow one to see inconsistencies in the burning, at which point not-as-charred-as-the-rest-of-'em stretches of wood should have another showdown with the flamethrower.
  5. Oil. Even after washing, the boards will be covered in soot, and thus will remain messy to the touch unless properly sealed. The sugi community of designers seems to rather unanimously endorse the use of Penofin rosewood oil (for cedar, use the cedar variety), so charred boards will get a coat of this with a paint roller once they've been washed and dried.
  6. Predrill. Wood tends to split in small dimensions, and the 1x3 or 1x4 boards I'll be using will probably be more susceptible to splitting than most. So to ensure that each board is affixed to the rain screen with attention given to aesthetic, I'll need to predrill a few thousand holes (each board will need two screws at each of the seven furring strips, so fourteen per board and about two thousand overall).
  7. All systems go. With the rain screen up, the cedar charred, and the boards drilled, it will (one of these days) be time to put the siding up, which will be a tedious but gratifying process. Once that (and the window/door trim) is done, the exterior of the Matchbox will be nearly complete.

One other sugi-related note I'll include simply because I couldn't find such a note anywhere else on the internet and would like the information to be out there for others curious about choosing a sugi wood:

Comparative combustion: sugi pine versus sugi cedar

Red cedar is expensive. Yellow pine (framing lumber) is cheap. As such—and because the wood will be torched anyway—I thought it might be possible to get away with charring pine instead of cedar and consequently cutting the cost of siding in half.

Curious if this could work, I found some pine scrap and some cedar scrap and burned each. As it turns out, sugi treated the different species quite differently: the pine blackened much more quickly and richly, looking like a piece of wood that, well, one might pull out of a campfire. The cedar, by contrast, adopted a less-saturated silvery sheen, which in my opinion was far more appealing than the flatter black of the yellow pine.

That being said, though this little experiment pushed me toward the cedar for my siding purposes, sugi pine is pretty neat in its own right and could probably fill many a need of many an architect. For reference, here are photos of each, with the caveat that (a) I started out with a nearly-empty tank of propane and thus couldn't burn the scraps fully, and (b) the pine appears more photogenic than the cedar, but the in-person look of each is a little different.

Western red cedar, lightly charred. Interacts with light beautifully and my chosen option for siding.
Yellow pine, lightly charred. Flatter and darker than the former. Could be very cool for certain applications/tastes. 

Additional Matchbox news of noteworthiness: The rain catchment porch awning has been kinda-sorta built and installed, plumbing will commence this week, and insulation (open-cell sprayfoam) will be put in shortly thereafter—more on all of these in future posts.

Additional Boneyard Studios news of noteworthiness: Lee now has a roof and windows and is making great progress on her siding, and Brian's prefabricated walls (SIPs, or structurally-insulated panels) have arrived and are in the process of being stood up. With all three houses fully under construction and winter just around the corner, it promises to be a busy coming month around the lot. We also recently said farewell to the Fencl as it left for its new home in the midwest: though it will be missed, it has opened up a killer clay pit for me to burn things in.

And finally: As detailed above, finishing the rain screen, charring the wood, and putting up the siding will be a lot of work. If you're a nice and useful person and would like to help build and/or burn, let me know and I'll make sure you get the details for the upcoming flamethrower fiesta or other near-term work parties. Thanks!

Oh, just kidding; one more thing: Many thanks to Justin for straight-up building the Matchbox's awning in less than an hour, to Matt and Matt and Tony for helping to hoist the awning up and stabilize it at a very late hour, and to Lauren for aforementioned assistance on the rain screen. And thanks to Debra, the wonderful woman I met in the Home Depot parking lot who, seeing me standing next to my scooter with the face of someone slowly realizing that the enormous sink they just purchased isn't going to make it back on that thing safely, so kindly and generously offered to drive it back to the lot for me. 

More to come soon!

* A footnote on the use of "sugi": I'll be using this term in a shorthand sense for shou sugi ban-related posts, but you probably shouldn't because it's a totally incorrect way to split the things up. The sugi third of shou sugi ban literally translates to "cypress" (shou and ban meaning "the burning [or charring] of"), while some would dispute this and say that sugi actually denotes "Japanese cedar", which in either case (cypress or Japanese cedar) refers to a type of wood I will not be using (opting for western red cedar myself). And yet, sugi rolls off the tongue in a more definitive and distinct way than shou or ban, hence its selection as my shorthand term of choice and thus the need for this inane footnote which will likely bore or go unread by most but which is probably necessary for the occasional linguistic zealot whom I in no way aim to offend.


"I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practise resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartan-like as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion." — Henry David Thoreau, Walden; Or, Life in the Woods

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