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.