Category Archives: Building

The Gamechanger

We can´t have a proper screen door because the door swings out.  Alas.   But last fall we ordered one of these walk-through screen doors, with a strip of magnets that close behind you.  For $7, why not?  That´s a reasonable risk.

When the blackflies came out, out came the screen door.

AMAZing!

Best $7 ever spent!  We hung it upside down – took two days to figure that out – that´s what ignoring the instructions will get you.

It works SO well.  Clackity clack – it closes itself up behind you, like magic.

Sometimes it sounds vaguely like applause.

The little house gets a floor

We installed black hardwood floor in the tiny house this weekend.  A whole 120 sq ft!  Two days: first we moved/shoved everything from one side of the house (room) to the other side, did the floor, and then moved everything from the second side to the first side to do that half of the floor.

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We installed with an ordinary brad nailer, but each nail needed to be set, to not interfere with the T&G

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It’s so smooth!  Perfect for sock feet skating (a whole two strides across the room).

Very nice to cover the raw wood subfloor that has been the floor surface for two years, and recording all the stains of life in its grain.

When shopping for prefinished hardwood for under $1/sq ft, there are limitations on your choice.  In our case, there was a half-box too little of the black, so we finished it off with 3 courses of a different colour (but matching tongue).  It will all be hidden under the “kitchen”.

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Among all the “stuff” that had to be shifted out of the second side is the kitchen – a 1×4″ affair supporting the countertop that I knocked up in an afternoon for temporary function – two years ago.  That had to come out to floor underneath it, and we put plywood up behind it so I can eventually tile a backsplash.

that's the kitchen "counter" doing workbench duty in the middle of the room now img_5263SOMEday, we’ll put some proper cabinetry under the counter, instead of this legs and shelves business.

It looks a little too nice now, like the rest of the place has a ways to go to live up to the floor now.  So warm underfoot now (the advantage of black in the sunshine).

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Total amount of waste and leftovers after job done. A shoebox worth.

This Tiny House Life

We live in a tiny house.

House is a generous term. It’s much more of a cabin. This tiny house life closely resembles what most would call camping. Tiny is quite accurate, though.

12 x 16´, 192 square feet (“Tiny house” is generally 200 sq ft or less). It sort of has two stories- there’s an up”stairs” more spacious than the average tiny house loft, that holds a bed and clothes and things, but one can’t walk around with the sloping ceiling.

It is also off-grid. This means we have a couple solar panels on the front with a battery bank, and a wood stove that heats the place.  We cook with propane.

I’m really happy that our passive solar worked out as well as it did. A lot of math can be done to achieve the right angles of eave overhang so that the summer sun does not shine in the windows and the winter sun does. I did no math. I looked at the sun at noon, and pointed the house at it. I guessed at the overhang. Nailed it. At summer solstice the eave shadows the front windowsill. At winter solstice the sun hits the back wall.

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Space matters I – design

Considering space, and the premium it is at in a tiny house, I chose to give a LOT of that space to insulation. Many square feet of interior space went to a double deep quilt of insulating. R28 in the walls. I think I’ll be happy forever about that allocation of space. It keeps it warm, so warm. With just the sun, even on cold days, the big south windows collect enough rays that it gets comfortably warm. On sunny days, if someone also stirs up the fire in the morning, then windows must be opened.

The woodstove takes up a big chunk of space. To keep code tolerances from stove to flammables takes space, but it’s not negotiable. We have a small woodstove, and a fire very quickly heats the whole place. Often too effectively, and windows get opened again.

Heating the tiny house, we laugh all the way to the woodshed. One cord! One. Cord! A year. That is a massive savings in energy- in our case mostly time, doing firewood.

Mud room top left, hearth bottom right- big chunks of space
Mud room top left, hearth bottom right- big chunks of space (“kitchen” top right- wall to wall counter)

One of the best allocations of space we have is a mud room. I was dubious about it at first, but it serves so many functions now! It’s a division between the outdoor stuff (coats and boots), and the indoor life of slippers and tea. That’s where the dog sleeps (His choice. He can’t take off his fur coat). It’s a cooler room to put cooler things in, and it’s an airlock. In a house the size of a room, open the door on a -10C night and all the heat whooshes right out the door. I highly recommend the mudroom, even in a tiny house.  The odd shape of it, with the angled inside door, turned out to be genius.  It works extremely well on both sides of the walls.

Space matters II- Living with less of it

Space matters. Anyone buying or building a house is saying “ok, this is how much space we’re willing to build, maintain, and heat, and we’re going to take on the challenges that come with it”. If that’s a big house, then the challenges might be paying for it, decorating it, contracting out the Xmas lights and landscaping. If it’s a little house, then the challenges are:

1 The first major difference, and also motivation, for the whole tiny house “thing” is that it forces you to face your stuff. Stuff is a major feature of modern life. It means a lot. The stuff you have can enable or inhibit what you are able to do; announce, reinforce, or create identity; and absolutely determine your lifestyle.

To live in a tiny house, implicitly, you are choosing to pay more attention than usual to the stuff you have, and probably, do without a lot of it. If your house is big enough, there is enough room for stuff to come and go, sit and be forgotten, saved – there is slush room. Stuff can be ignored. There is space for that in a big house.

Tiny house? Not one bit. Not one. There is no space, for anything to be ignored. This is a pretty big challenge. It can be an existential one, if stuff defines your identity or enables you. Downsizing into a tiny house means a lot of things. Like: I can live with less. I trust that I can access what I need when I need it (from somewhere other than the garage or attic). I can be different, my identity can be based on other than what I own.

We have largely evaded these difficult questions by having other buildings on the property (a couple of also-small outbuildings). There is NO WAY that anyone can farm, even a little bit, without a great deal of stuff. Chiefly tools. We have a lot of tools. And feed, and seed, and fencing, and hoses, and buckets and barrows. This all just lives elsewhere, not attached to our house, not heated.

I still have quite a bit of stuff, especially things that I need in order to make, build, or create things. H.W. has a lot of bicycles. But we don’t get to forget about the space our stuff takes up anymore. Everything gets critically eyeballed, sifted. Analyses are made.

2 The second major difference that I notice, is that in a tiny house, you practically live outside. One is intimate with the outdoors. A tiny house is too small to “contain” a whole life. I am always aware of the weather, the season, the time of day, the temperature, because I’m always out in it. I’ve wondered how often the average exterior door gets opened and closed on a house. I figure it’s far greater in our house. From first thing in the morning to moments before sleep, we are out and in that door. The wood’s outside, the water’s outside, the tools are outside – everything other than the basics is somewhere else, so we are constantly scampering out.

I like it. There is no way to get disconnected from time, season and place.

3 Small things are desirable. Everything is little. Space is at a premium. It’s the opposite of the wild west  (unlimited promise of the frontier)- infinite expansion is not an option. Therefore, things that are compact, that cleverly use space efficiently, that have multiple uses, are valued and appreciated (smallness and efficiency are not always qualities that anyone cares about).

Then again, some things are valued out of proportion to the space they take up. We have two (!) manual typewriters in prime space.

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Different fonts, of course.

4 Privacy. Considering we lived together for over a year in the tiny camper, the tiny house is luxuriously capacious. Still, it’s essentially one room. Smells, sounds, temperatures are all shared. Often this sucks to negotiate, but on the other hand, there’s no distance. We do things together, even unintentionally.  We are always in earshot.

5 Oh yeah, money. Much, much, much, absurdly, cheaper. Even with a ridiculous amount of insulation and eleven windows, our tiny house cost less than $5000. It could have been even cheaper, but I didn’t ferret out the rock bottom price on every single thing. Commonly, a pre-built tiny house can run a lot more, but they can also be really fancy, with Scandinavian everything and sneakily hidden washing machines. Like everything, there’s a spectrum. We are nearer the primitive end of this one.  No plumbing. No laundry.

Similar to the off-grid life, tiny house life costs the currency of energy and time. Much less money to build, or to pay for, or pay the mortgage on, but there are non-monetary costs.  More time paying attention to stuff, moving it around…

One big thing about a tiny house is that it does not absorb “mess”, at all.  If you have a long marble countertop and at one end you have a pile of bills spread out that you were sorting, there is still the impression of “clean”, because it’s mostly clean, except for that pile, which is obviously temporary – a work station.  In a tiny house, one pile of bills, or a project spread out, or a batch of canning – any workstation takes up the whole counter, maybe the whole room, and no matter how temporary it might be, it gives the impression of MESS! All surfaces are covered therefore everything is a mess! A cataclysmic mess can happen as easy as bringing in the groceries etcetera from a town trip.  On the flip side, it can tidy up in about ten minutes.  A thorough, comprehensive total house cleaning, vacuuming included, is a two hour job.

As everyone knows, the world is filling up. Some people still do have “unlimited space”, some do with exceedingly little. Tiny house means a mindset that’s the opposite of sprawl. If there isn’t enough room for anything and everything, then you have to bring the energy and time of attention to choosing what to bring in and keep; you have to be conscious.

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For those considering tiny or just tiny-curious, I highly recommend the wonderful, thoughtful, funny, why-to and how-to book on going small, The Big Tiny, by the incomparable Dee Williams.

This Off-Grid Life

Moving House

The wretched old farmhouse is getting moved across the field to a new home.

Surprisingly on schedule (our third year here), we’re getting the old building moved off of its very sketchy “foundation” (six cinder blocks) and off of the eroded wet hole that it stands over, in favour of level ground.

If we let it go any longer, it’s going to fall over or rot.

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Before. Jacked up and set on skids, but still on the eroded hole.

Let me just say at the outset:  I know, I know, it would be cheaper and easier to knock this thing down and build a new one.   (It’s the first thing everybody says).

It would. I know.

I think I’m saving the house for purely sentimental reasons.  It’s over 100 years old, it’s the only remaining structure from the once flourishing and now completely non-existent turn-of-the-century gold mining community that once populated this corner of Nova Scotia, and I don’t want to be the one to tear it down, although that would make more sense in many ways.

We don’t even have a plan for it, just that we’re going to start with a basic rescue.

Before moving time, HW took out the central brick chimney, before the chimney fell through the floor and took some of the house with it.  The chimney wasn’t salvageable, because it took a couple of jogs, so could never have a liner inserted.

A neighbour of ours is contracted to move it.

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Tractor glamour shot

Initially he jacked it up, put two 8x8s under it, and under those, 4x10s, supported by cribbing set up in the muddy hole.

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Before initial move

That gave enough support to roll the house off of the hole and onto the planks set in the solid ground.

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Off the hole

Some problems arose at that point.  One gable wall is in serious trouble, having had structural members cut out for windows (?) and not having been reframed properly, so the whole wall decided to “burst” outward, threatening the roof.

We more or less tied it back together with come-alongs and a winch and bracing, to hold the rafters from spreading, and take this broken wall along for the ride.  It’s going to need to be completely reframed.  There turned out to be no header over either window.  This wall was never going to make it.

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Since the house has now proved too fragile to move like “normal”, by dragging across the ground on skids, he’s continuing to roll it on 1.5″ pipe rollers, under the skids on heavy planks.img_4487img_4484

This is time consuming, as every few feet you have to collect the pipes that spit out the back and move them to the front, and also move the (v heavy) planks to the front.  The house wants to drift sideways off of its planks, so he has to jack it up to adjust its heading periodically, plus the intended direction is not quite a straight line, so he’s slowly turning it.

Although it’s slow, the house just glides along when it rolls.

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It’s now past the leaning woodshed (we aren’t going to save that)

Inflating an Off-grid Greenhouse

The short answer: a bilge blower fan on 6v.

The first question to ask yourself if you’re considering an off-grid greenhouse, is, should I choose an inflatable?

It’s more work stretching the plastic perfectly tight over a non-inflating greenhouse, but, then you’re done.  An inflatable is stronger, and warmer, but, is it worth it?

If you have a robust solar system and can hardwire your inflatable greenhouse into it, great.  Otherwise, say if there’s a possibility of having to carry batteries from a charging station to the greenhouse, you may want to choose more work up-front vs. more ongoing work maintaining power to the GH.

We  have an adequate solar array,  not a generous one, and it is set up too far from the GH to directly wire it or the batteries stationed there into the controller.  Therefore, we assumed from the beginning that we’d be carrying batteries.  How often was another story.

Choosing an inflated GH off-grid, the first hurdle is the inflator fan. AC fans are readily available, but DC fans are not, and the issue is not readily answered by Google either.  That’s why I’m writing this.

I’ll spare you the harrowing hair-pulling details in this quick overview of our journey to get our off-grid GH inflated:

1) Can the squirrel cage blower be detached from the AC motor it came with and be retrofit to a heater fan out of a car?  Yes.  It depletes a 12v battery in a few hours.  Not sustainable.

2) Go see an electric motor specialist.  Can a DC motor of appropriate specs be obtained that will run the squirrel cage at the right rate?  In theory.  It’s $349, and wait, no, it’s out of production.

Feeling very much trapped inside the box, 3) Call Inventor Dad. In 48 hours, he found the right thing.  A bilge blower fan from a marine supply.  It’s cheap ($25ish), it’s made to run on 12v, it’s the right size, and compact into the bargain.  Yay!!!!  This one is from Binnacle.com.

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Our troubles are not over…

I hooked it all up, plugged it in, it started blowing like it was born to, filling the envelope entirely in about 7 seconds, and then it kept blowing, and blowing.  Oh crap!  The plastic started to strain and at about 12 seconds I lunged to yank the leads off the battery before it blew.  Far too powerful.

4) Try a 6v battery.  Perfect.  It runs for two days on a charged 6v at exactly the right pressure.  Are we done?

Not quite.  The 70lb 6v batts that we have are, to put it mildly, no effing fun to carry back and forth from the cabin where our solar panels are mounted to the greenhouse.  Put a panel by the greenhouse?  A possibility, but there’s nowhere to mount ON the greenhouse, so it would require its own stand.

One last attempt. 5) Aha, I think, a dimmer switch.  An AC dimmer switch does not work in a 12v line.  DC dimmer switches exist, and are super cheap on eBay.  I thought this would be the final answer.  12v batts are no prob to carry, and the dimmer would cut it down to 6v.  The dimmer blew up on the first day.  Turns out you really can’t load them with a motor.

If this sounds bad and you’re wondering how much hair-pulling I left out, just imagine 100s of trips over months at all hours, in all weather, carrying batteries, and add in periods of despair (while carrying batteries) between each breakthrough.

Especially sucky is that in the winter, when you really need it inflated, there’s no sun to keep the batts charged.

Our reality: Most of the time it is not inflated.  That’s because we still have to carry 70lb 6v batteries back and forth, and it just doesn’t need to be inflated 100% of the time.  We turn it on for windy and snowy days and nights. I was a nervous Nellie at first about it, but the first winter it saw was one of the worst for snowload ever in the Maritimes, and it handily evaded Greenhouse collapse disorder.  I tightened up the plastic much more assiduously than usual for an inflated GH,  to quite smooth, and cold, there’s hardly any slack to flap.  In the heat of the summer sun, I’ll have to reevaluate how often it needs to be inflated, and perhaps dedicate a panel to it.  Then the battery-carrying might be eliminated or limited to the wintertime.

The moral of the story: think hard about inflating vs. not, before you buy.

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May 2015- We dedicated a panel to it.  Built a simple frame with legs.   It rotates manually:)  It’s working really well, now that the summer time sun is here – now we just leave GH inflated all the time, as it was intended to be.  It’s a bit of a waste for a 120W panel, perhaps, from our home system, but then, maybe it will be just right for the shorter days of winter and be not such a waste.

Greenhouse!

Got the greenhouse up!  An inflatable with aluminum ribs and a steel ridgepole, it’s a beautifully designed structure.  It’s my first GH, but I’ve seen a few, and I’m impressed with this one.  I’m glad we were encouraged to buy from Multishelter Solutions.

It’s been a flatout race.  My hens are getting picked off and I’m desperate to get them under a roof, and the winter is coming fast.

As it turns out, it is possible to erect one of these alone, but as you can see, it’s not safe building practices, and I do NOT recommend it.  I survived, though.

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The ridgepole come in sections with tabs that hold 8 ribs, four on either side.  I put two on one side, walked it up the ladder with another rib in my hand, connected it.  Very dodgy.IMGP8274

As soon as I got the second rib on the other side, it was stable.  One stable section.  All the ribs sleeve onto pins pounded in the ground.IMGP8277

All the ribs installed and purlins.  So this section can torque, but will not come down.  The “foundation”.

Next comes the next section of ridgepole, that connects to the first.

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Even dodgier.  Yes, it is now supported only by that ladder, until I can get the ribs attached to that section.

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And the very last section of ridgepole, now pretty late.

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Then there was a couple days of end framing, installing the baseboard along the perimeter, cross bracing, and lots of bolts, before it was time for plastic.

I was beyond exhausted driving to get this done, so we’re lucky I took any pictures.

For plastic day we had a crowd of lovely people come to help stretch the poly on the ends of the greenhouse, and pull the big sheet over top.

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All done.  I cut the doors in later and framed doors on the end.

 

 

The barn is down.

It was well on its way to start with, but we finished it off.  Mostly H.W., denailing and stacking the usable wood.  A mountain of unusable wood and another mountain of broken glass remains behind, to be dealt with.

I had notions of creating a time lapse, but a series will have to do.  From the beginning:

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5-star Compost Accommodation


H.W. built a deluxe compost bin for our current hosts.

The wood was salvaged from twisted, warped and collapsing old raised beds, but it cooperated very well when cut down into shorter lengths.

Yes, pressure treated wood is not good for contacting any dirt you grow food in, but it was available, “up”-cyclable, and probably already finished its nasty copper leaching after some years of exposure.

The boxes are 5’, 4’, and 3’, based on the idea that the ideal volume for compost to reach cooking temperatures is 4’ cubed.  However, the initial box always reduces in the first weeks before it’s time to move to the second, so making that box bigger means you’ll more likely get a full second box.  The third box is more storage than active, so if it gets utilized, it will handily hold the reduced volume of the cooked-down second box.

Altogether, a beautifully executed design for a closed compost.  The front pieces lift out one at a time, and the lid for holding in moisture is loose boards, also easily removable.

I think it’s funny because it looks like a big dresser.  Take the bucket of food scraps out and throw them into the backyard sock drawer!

The Five-Pallet Compost rather on the opposite end of the luxury spectrum, but still functional.

Almost done, it must be about time to move again!

We’ve been on a concentrated push to truly finish the barn. That is, our home. It’s been “adequate”, by my standards, for some time, and I’ve been living in it, but the true goal is to have all the trim and paint and handles and whatnots complete. It’s tiresome to be constantly surrounded by a to-do list in 3D.

We’ve finished all the floor, putting in click planks of cork. It’s a compromise; I wanted gluedown because it looks better and has no adhesives in the laminate, but the cork could outlast the subfloor so it’s nice to be able to take it up, and I was told that Torlys has peerless environmental practices. We finished all the last voids of canvas, plated all the outlets, finished all the baseboard and thresholds, exterior wood, made custom curtains, a tile pad for the woodstove, and many storage shelves. It was more work than it sounds like.

Not that I was ever out to prove this, but I feel I’ve proved that a home can be as sexy and cozy without plumbing, with wood heat and minimal electrical, as a house much bigger with a $1000/month mortgage (I’ve been there).

We have a strong ethic of not buying any materials if we can figure out a way to avoid it. This frees up money to spend in the right place, IMO- on better quality and more attractive versions of what does need to be purchased. It also means multiple varieties of wood trim, reused and denailed lumber, and using stuff for applications it wasn’t exactly meant for.

The creative alternatives tend to be more satisfying and unique. Ceramic insulators and baling wire for curtain “rods” (I have a hunch that champagne corks with a hole bored in them would be pretty cool too), DIY wooden switchplates, 12″ tall (short) wainscotting pieced together from dozens of scraps, and of course a pulley-operated dumbwaiter. My favorite is the dumbwaiter, to send morning tea up to the loft. No home is complete without one.

It’s very satisfying to have all the inevitable stuff of life support organized and arranged for optimal accessibility and function. It takes a fair bit of time and attention to orchestrate that. It’s quite emotionally satisfying, a relief even – in H.W.’s version of “A place for everything and everything in its place”: “Everything has a holster and everything is holstered”. Our kitchen won’t look like the average kitchen (maybe anyone’s kitchen), but it has functional zones and we can lay hands on everything commonly used instantly, and less used easily.

I’m especially in love with this composting container from Lee Valley Tools. It’s meant to hang on a cupboard door, but since we don’t have one, I made a custom catch for it to hook on, and it slides the length of the counter and slides off to take it and empty it. The unexpected advantage of this is that it slides the length of the counter, and one can deftly sweep all the crumbs straight into it with a flourish!

The final price tag for this entire reno, from the starting point of roof, framing and dirt floor to (plumbing-free) suite, is under $12 000. The biggest chunks of that expense were the certified chimney, the Roxul insulation, the cork floor, and the essential but unseen drain tile.

Accidentally Green

Hi!

I’ve been suffering from a staggering fit of Blogger Guilt:  the common condition of being overwhelmed by so many things to urgently write about, compounded by feeling that there’s not enough time to ever catch up.   It causes some kind of neurological paralysis specific to bloggers.

Since we’re home from the holidays, we’ve been immersed in an aggressive push to finish the house (barn), while we’re still living in it.   Truly finish it, so that I can sit a chair, say, and look around and not see missing baseboard, shelves that need to be built, absent curtains, etc. It would be really nice to get the barn DONE and then be able to just live in it while exploring other interests – the kind that other people have, when they don’t live within the unfinished construction project of their home (whatever those interests may be?).

For a change.  My typical pattern is to make a home truly habitable just in time to start packing, handing off the dwelling to someone who doesn’t have the building skills to create a habitat out of thin air.

We were on a tight 10- day plan (we really are tantalizingly close to “really done”) but I optimistically neglected to add that crucial 20%, and a few more things arose to plump up the to-do list, so we are again paused at “almost-complete” to pay attention to other important aspects of life.

Like the world at large!  Watch out for posts coming out of chronological order to catch up on our recent train and hitchhiking adventures!