Sunday, November 14, 2010

High and Higher

This November, my shoulders are stiff-to-burning from hunching over schoolwork, so it was good to get up and up ladders, to carry things other than thoughts for a couple of days. Then, over the weekend, I got another kind of high. I went from the winsome coast to downtown Dartmouth, where, for the weekend, I was surrounded by 120 teenagers. Some delight? I was at the annual Anglican diocesan youth conference and this year, we nearly blew the roof off our host church. An awesome theater troupe joined us over the weekend and whipped up all our thoughts and bodies. We went from candles & incense to foot-stomping and peals of laughter like it all okay... and it was. Am presently weary in a nice way and feel like I've been gone for a long time.

Staples & Sticky Tape

It's the middle of November and neither weather nor schedules have been co-operating with house progress. However, we were graced with two decent days last week and got some essential stuff done. The goal, just to remind you, is to have the house closed in by winter. We installed six windows - and have another three to go. And the house really isn't that big. We have a door yet to install also, but the roof is done. We were quite proud of our ingenuity re. that task. At a slant of 45 degrees, the roof does not lend itself to good climbing and even a ladder leaned against it will slip if not supported. We made our ladder cosy with blankets and supported it with a lawn tractor when we both needed to be 13' above ground. Smirks and plenty of "Very clever," I assure you. If before the house was made of sticks making nice frames against the sky & trees, its walls are now a right constructivist delight of straight lines and negative space (2-dimensional).

Monday, October 18, 2010

House in Landscape

Further to comments made in an earlier posting, tiny houses are ever so photogenic. Some of the best shots of them are mostly landscape; the house itself serves to focus and give scale to the vista. (Just a sidebar, much early North American landscape painting used a similar device. Artists often included wee explorers in vast landscape paintings. Is this a sign of irrepressible human arrogance, ie. that no landscape could have meaning without our presence, or of a sincere human effort to know our rather puny place in the cosmos? Questions to take to the gallery.)

Wait. Pardon my disregard for parentheses! The question of scale is an important one. And especially with a tiny house, setting matters. I very swiftly realized that a house 8x18', no matter how bespoke, could not be enough space for me. But I realized just as swiftly that my 'home' always exceeds my housing. Today, from my Halifax residence, I walked down through the shipyards, along city streets, over a long, long bridge, through parking lots, and finally to the Dartmouth ferry... only to step off it and onto the uphill sidewalks all the way back, erm, home. On arriving, I wanted to keep going. I can feel this in my chest, the primal pull of the season (strongest at dusk) to MIGRATE. This has often been a time of year for me to hop international borders, discover new places, wander out alone or wander out towards people I love. It's discipline this year to stay put.

The house is small. And the building is happening slowly (ordered the steel roofing this weekend). There's another landscape coming into focus, too: the peopled landscape. Now there are 3 named followers of this funny little blog and several, several others I know about. There's a life of the house in words as I tell person after person what I'm doing and I hope all of this continues. It's a storybook house that deserves storybook visitors. Amen to the Author of all.

Road & Sea

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Nicole: This little house is so frickin' photogenic.
Elmer: Every photographer needs one?

Saturday, October 9, 2010


In addition to getting rafters up, we nailed down the loft flooring (simple plywood). The underside is painted white, making a nice cieling for the cosy back-section of my, ahem, house. As the height comes and the lines against the sky appear, it really does look like a house. I say that at every stage, but at this one, it really is true. Amen to this and yet we continue.

the View

After a week of writing papers (my first two at the Master's level - quality as yet unconfirmed), it is so good to get back to construction work. We had the ever so satisfying job today of mounting rafters & ridgepole. These were pieces that my father pre-fabricated very early on in this project; sweet vindication that they went up square & strong. I applaud good measurements and appreciate the intriguing profile of the roofline. Also today, we paid a visit to Fraser's in Berwick and I am much reassured about installing metal roofing, having talked to one who has installed same numerous times. Tomorrow, with help of a very fine man named Joe, the roof sheathing, drip edge, and ice & water shield...

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Progress of Walls

At this stage, the house begins to look like a giant box. All sheathing is going up, after which window openings will reappear, and so on. I'm starting to get a sense of how tall this house will be (surprisingly tall) and am quite satisfied by the headroom beneath the loft joists. My sister and her man visited this weekend, in part for a pre-emptory housewarming. Lovely!

All these angles appeal to spiders and in most crooks, they're weaving. My ears caught a buzz and I swiveled to see one mean mama turning a bee over & over & over in her web, the bee as large as the spider herself. From within more & more layers of spider silk, that buzz kept whining out and made me suck in my breath. What a sight. What a feast, esp. since the bee had a full load of pollen on each leg. Work done, the spider returned to the calm centre of her web to wait out the fading buzz and let her serum do its liquefying work. Oh, Nature. Sometimes the physically small can fill my eyes & imagination.


Immediately across from the hardware store is this funny little sign, which, any who have followed it will know, points to the best bakery this side of France. Marie et Guy have settled deep in Nova Scotia, effectively turning runs for screws into runs for pain au chocolat also.

On the theme of distractions (which is, perhaps, to underplay the intrinsic value of attending theological college), my father and I were marvelling at how swift progress would be on a project like ours if we were dedicated to it day after day. As it is, the tiny house is a weekend project and about this, I have no complaints. I'm savouring the time we can spend on it and find that I can turn the next stages over & over in my mind throughout the week. It's a pleasure to be involved in something that is unfolding, but slowly, especially as the rest of my week has suddenly been taken up with pressing through piles of information & ideas in concert (or dissonance) with a chorus of fast company.


Down over the mountain is everything I need to buy. Last weekend, there was a fair bit of to & fro: picking up yet another window (for the bathroom), then picking up more screws and nails when Saturday afternoon was going so well we were going to run short. Time was, I worked in retail and sure did appreciate what a world unto itself the shop could be. I sold art supplies. It was a great job to have while I was in, ah, art school. And in the ever-revolving way of retail staffing, I worked alongside a raft of good souls for shorter or longer times. One starred (is that the word?) in B-rated superhero/vampire flicks, one had the same top-knot hairstyle as the dog she toted around in the basket hanging off her bicycle handlebars, one kept cigarette butts in her breast pocket and all gave that one a wide berth. There were various in-store liasons and drug deals and dramas, of which our regular customers were privy to greater or lesser extents. I've left retail but I haven't lost my eye for interesting staff. It's a great pleasure to frequent Fraser's Pro Hardware because all the staff there seem freakishly content, even by Nova Scotia standards. It's so true of rural Canada that the hardware store is a hub of economy and action. And the Fraser's staff knows their stuff and know each other and I am secretly proud when any of them indicate that I know what I'm on about with my problem-solving in this little house project. Lines of respect are worth a lot in this builder's world. Though I did get a decent shot of Mike behind the cash, it hardly seems fair to plaster him online, so here's the window art at Fraser's Pro.

Monday, September 6, 2010


A new schoolmate asked me this week why I had the idea to build this little house. I can come up with a great array of answers, but perhaps the biggest is that it's just exciting to live in a variety of places. This bus/home is a couple of country roads away from here. (The region is liberally peppered with experiments like this one, praise be!) I would happily live for a while in a bus or a horsebox or a manor house (record shows...) and I've no illusion that the tiny house is going to be my terminal address.

Last weekend, I welcomed my first houseguests into the proto-house. They were passing through Nova Scotia on their annual camping trip and I knew them to be sympathetic to my housing ideals (such as they are). Their camping trip is a yearly opportunity to trim living essentials down to virtually nil, while their home life is defined by modular & folding furniture, a shared cat, but two apartments joined by an interior door that can be both opened and closed as life dictates. May the tiny house know many more fine visitors.

Four Walls, Ladies & Gents

...perhaps not complete walls, but progress is good. Once we had all four walls tacked down, there was the challenge to level & straighten them. The trailer is on uneven ground and even though I acquired 3 jacks from my friendly neighborhood auto wrecker, levelling the whole rig would've been a real palaver. My father came up with an ingenious jig for the spirit level and, with one person reading the level (thanks, mom), one pushing against a wall, and one screwing in a temporary brace, we arrived at a rock-steady, square, and beautiful construction.

Sheathing, a thin plywood layer just outside the framing, will eventually cover the whole structure (minus window & door openings). It has made sense to fix the sheathing on some portions of wall before lifting them into place, while the rest will be fixed much later. With four walls in place, I'm aware for the first time how strange it will be to have only one way into the house. It's tremendous fun to swing and hop through every available space in the houseframing.

Next job: rim joists.

Weather Permitting

"Work" is a beautiful word. Lying on the desk of my new dorm room at school is one schedule; here's another. As part of our Labour Day work, my father and I co-ordinated schedules, with me judging when I'd be able to get away from the city. Weather permitting, we'll get enough done that, on the next holiday weekend, we can roof the house.

BTW, Earl-the-hurricane rose up the other coast of the province, leaving the Valley virtually untouched. This is one of Canada's biggest apple-growing areas; there were many tense, then grateful prayers mingled with Earl's breath here. The storm blew in fresh air and all creatures (builders included) seem to have sprung back to life. We've had more birds than usual circling over our work today and, amongst other tasks, I was charged with freeing a hummingbird from the workshop. Thought I'd killed her in my attempt to net her, but once outside, she hummed fast out of my father's hand. Lots of sighs through that drama, too.

Monday, August 30, 2010

September coming a day early this year. As of tomorrow, I'm back at school. It's been a while - maybe four years? Or three? These past two weeks of working hands & mind in the open air have been tremendous for inviting spaciousness within. And they've nestled nicely between a summer of work in a parish church (Anglican) and a scholar's year of Divinity (year one of an MDiv degree at the Atlantic School of Theology).

I'm inclined to believe that going deep into the stories of the christian tradition has everything to do with our day-to-day, that sawdust and stardust really do mingle, so to speak. Without knowledge of those stories, what would we make of Seamus Heaney's "Skylight"? I realize he's launching from a different building project than mine, but for a poem about roofs and salvation, you could scarce do better than this...

The Skylight

You were the one for skylights. I opposed
Cutting into the seasoned tongue-and-groove
Of pitch pine. I liked it low and closed,
Its claustrophobic, nest-up-in-the-roof
Effect. I liked the snuff-dry feeling,
The perfect, trunk-lid fit of the old ceiling.
Under there, it was all hutch and hatch.
The blue slates kept the heat like midnight thatch.

But when the slates came off, extravagant
Sky entered and held surprise wide open.
For days I felt like an inhabitant
Of that house where the man sick of the palsy
Was lowered through the roof, had his sins forgiven,
Was healed, took up his bed and walked away.

Seamus Heaney

You're welcome.

Tools and the Wielder

Tiny Man, Big House

Walls to Make a House

Wall framing is fairly simple business. We're using 2"x4" timber for the wall construction, which is perhaps more slender than the current industry standard, but is well proportioned to this build. We cut the wood to length in the shop, then screw it all together on the floor/deck of the trailer. Wood is a funny material (my father agrees). It's surprisingly flexible, not necessarily lent to cutting pristine angles against the sky. It's twisted and sticky and very forgiving to work with, esp. since we're using screws and have to, on frequent occasion, undo and reposition cripple studs and uprights. Once the wall frames are done, we hoist them up and knock them into place. They make a line drawing of the house, showing where windows & solid walls will be - most satisfying.

I called in my mother for second opinion on where the windows of the second long wall should be placed. Pulled her away from quilting for a similar task in different material - what arrangement of boxes, stripes, and patterns to make this wall work?

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Rewind, revise, redo

After the sweet satisfaction of finishing the floor, my dad and I lounged back to admire our handiwork. Mmm. I hopped up on the floor, walked across it. Noticed a dip, like one corner had been hit by a giant sledgehammer and couldn't quite rise up to the height of the others. With cocked eyebrows and much sighing, we measured corner-to-corner-to-corner-to-corner, assessing variance. Three quarters of an inch. May not sound like much, but imagining the mounting headaches in trying to compensate at every next step or the annoyance of a slanty shanty from day one, we decided to try the floor again. We unscrewed the back section of subflooring, pulled back the vapour barrier, took out the insulation, undid the rat & rainproofing, and lifted that corner a blessed 3/4" on wooden blocks. Then we put it all back together again. It is a great advantage of working small that such corrections can happen in a hurry. Anyway, I like this photo because it shows the guts of the floor. For a builder, I'm not especially mathematically-minded, but the slap & smear parts of this construction kind of suit me.

The floor, by the way, is even.


I understand that the notion of what I'm doing is a bit hard to picture. While I'm reluctant to put up too many visuals of the finished article (the house is, in so many ways, simply emerging), this shot might help the visually-minded. Last autumn, my dear friend Jean and I travelled to a couple of spots in Vermont to meet some tiny house builders. Tim Guiles of Yes Wee Cabins ( was especially gracious in showing us through the half-dozen tiny houses he's built. Engineer and artist, he's worked out lots of the construction kinks that happen in a project like this and sells plans for his house 'Elegant Simplicity' at a suitably tiny price. There are lots of features to his design that I appreciate, while others will be modified in my home. That's how it goes when building one's own home, esp. if the home-to-body ratio is so small. This interior shot of the house Tim built inside his workshop shows the spaciousness and craftsmanship I'm aiming for in my build. But that I ordered windows without grills, one of my living room walls will look something like this. Yes'm, those are 10' ceilings...

'cross the road

Just a nice shot taken looking up the Bay. Clean, clean Saturday afternoon.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Layers of Floor

For those who don't give a rat's about how a floor is constructed, I imagine this is rather tedious stuff. but it's become somewhat fascinating for me. While normal house construction includes many of the same processes, housebuilding on a trailerbed entails special attention to the effects of highspeed travel and even higher speed winds. I was reminded that a 50rpm wind, plus a passing transport truck, equal hurricane conditions for this tiny house to endure if/when travelling from place to place. While we're not practicing exact science, we're taking every opportunity to secure & bolt what's there to what's being constructed. The floor has been a major project: flashing to keep the bugs & water out, joists, plenty o' caulk, insulation, vapour barrier, subflooring... all the work that's never seen.


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Here's my father, Elmer, without whom this project would be nothing. He and I are rather coy with people like window salesmen and trailer dealers. We trip over each other in according ownership of this house, with my father saying it's my project and me saying he's the brains behind it. He comes to this work with a wealth of knowledge and know-how, having trained and practiced as a doctor before launching solo on a full-on housebuilding project in the early '80s. Thus, the tiny house is his second housebuilding project and my first. Here, he's installing struts on the trailer we've stripped down to bare essentials. I'm getting more & more involved with the technical intricacies of building a solid structure that can move with ease and at 2 or 3 a.m., I lie contentedly awake thinking through the coming work of securing a structure while remaining relatively lightweight in construction. The early work had everything to do with removing heavy planking (no. 3 treated timber, I was told by a Load Trail rep) from the trailer bed and establishing a light-yet-strong support for the house.

Preparation, preparation, preparation

This preparation is pretty late-stage. Before this point, there was plenty of research and negotiation, but August has been a busy month and beginning this blog with sparks flying has a certain appeal, so. The trailer I bought came with a few unnecessary extras, esp. the whopping big ramps off the back end. As I won't be driving any cars onto this car hauler, I toted the ramps off to a scrap metal dealer (story to follow). Some hammering and shoving got the bulk of the excess out of the way, but since the total weight of the finished house is a careful consideration (the trailer is rated for 7500lbs), I set to work grinding off other non-structural metal.

The ramp I'm sitting on in the photo is one of two I took to a scrap metal guy over the mountain. (In this part of Nova Scotia, there are two mountains - north and south - neither of which are mountains at all, but which do flank a wide & verdant valley, the Annapolis.) Turns out, he doesn't deal in steel, but allows people to dump it in his drive because another guy hauls it off on occasion. I wasn't expecting any cash for the ramps; having them off my hands was enough. But as soon as they were unloaded, some lads pulled up and one said, "Gerry, you selling those? Cos I just built a trailer and I'm looking for some ramps." Then I looked at Gerry and said, "Are you going to sell him those?!" Someone opined that, since they were now sitting in Gerry's driveway, he could do as he pleased with them. Gerry looked at me with all seriousness and said, "I'm not going to sell them to him." Pause. "For anything less than a hundred bucks, anyway." I threw up my hands, said, "Do what you want, man." I had to laugh. I hope the ramps found a good home, they sure aren't a part of mine.

The Idea

Raised on good land and made for travel. Twenty-some years after my parents did their “back to the land thing” I did mine, except the land I went back to kept shifting. First a bit of English countryside, then the pavement and urban gardens of New England, then the ever-changing landscape of Nova Scotia. It was with my hands in those latter soils that I caught the idea of having a home of my own… that I could take with me as I moved. Not a yurt, though I could see the appeal. I was looking for something more substantial and more complex, a tidy little house whose every layer and joint I would know. When in England I orbited through Bristol several times, returning again & again to the painted gypsy caravan on the third (?) floor of the city museum, totally taken in by its tiny opulence. In Nova Scotia, with my bicycle wheels spinning beneath me, I was endlessly eying garden sheds and the ubiquitous trailers parked in driveways. Outbuildings and homes on wheels. Turns out, other good folks had put this together before me. My father introduced me to the world of tiny houses, neat little constructions that shrink conventional home features into the space that exists above a flatbed trailer. So here’s my hand sizing up my parents’ cottage – the Bay of Fundy’s at my back – and just outside the frame is parked an 8x18foot Load Trail car hauler, the movable foundation of my future home.