This is an epic post to try to catch up on what I’ve been doing the last couple weeks, since I have woefully neglected the blog. I have two more weeks of building before I return to California, at which point I will do some more technical posts on the floor and wall framing. This will hopefully tide you over until then.
June 18-19: Limping to Hood River, Oregon
Here’s some advice: even if they say you’ll bounce back in a couple days, don’t have surgery three days before you leave to start building your tiny house. For the week following, I was feverish, in pain, and bleeding and, for a good two weeks, limp as an amoeba. I ended up delaying my departure by a day and even so, it took me seven hours to pack and load since I wasn’t supposed to lift anything heavier than a milk jug. I would move two things and have to rest. Thankfully my friend Lisa stopped by and helped me with the heavier items. I made it as far as Weed, CA, staying awake all night in a creepy hotel room listening to the roar of the truck generators outside my window, hoping no one would break into my car since I didn’t even have the strength to bring my backpack in.
The next day was better. I realized that packing for four weeks, plus all my camping gear that lives in my car, I pretty much had everything I needed to live. I felt light and mobile; there wasn’t much more I would be adding to my tiny house. As if to underscore this, Dad sent me a photo a neighbor had taken of a tiny house that was passing through Hood River as it crisscrossed the country. I immediately recognized it as the Quest for Powder tiny house I had seen in a video Dee showed the first PAD workshop I attended last November. That seemed like a good sign.
Entering the Columbia River Gorge was an emotional moment. Thinking of my trailer gestating in my parents’ barn, I truly felt like I was coming home for the first time, even though I’ve been coming here all my life. The rain was lifting and I was trying to snap a photo of the Gorge when I realized the Quest for Powder tiny house was driving right past me on its way out of town!
June 20-21: Diving in on the first day of summer
The day after I arrived, Dee dropped by. I thought we were just going to go over the designs but we jumped right in and made a materials list for the floor construction and went to the lumber store that night. It was all a bit of a blur but we got everything we needed and she helped me get started with framing the floor the next day.
June 22-27: Settling in, slowing down
The next week was spent getting settled and figuring things out. I got my work site set up and continued with the floor construction. There were endless delays due to multiple trips to the hardware and lumber stores (I would never have guessed that I’d see bald eagles and osprey diving into the river on the way to a Home Depot), online researching, and trying to explain what I was doing to the neighbors and the UPS man who stopped by. Fortunately all the neighbors I’ve met so far have been very excited by the project and there have been many offers to help. One couple has even been talking about building a tiny house for their backyard. Another neighbor, Steffen, is a builder and has been incredibly helpful giving me tips and lending me tools.
In parallel to my tiny house building, my parents have been dealing with their first blueberry harvest. The land they bought last fall has nearly 300 50-year old blueberry bushes on it and they’ve been learning how to care for them organically. At the same time I arrived, the first varieties came on and we’d all be up at the crack of dawn, me obsessing about next steps on my tiny house and my parents’ discussing whether it was raining too much to pick the berries and how and where to sell them. When they went off to the various farmers markets, I held down the fort and sold flats of blueberries to people who stopped by. I’m not sure what they thought of me emerging in full carpenter’s kit with tool apron, kneepads and safety glasses!
Despite the whir of activity, it’s been nice to be away from the urban insanity and adapt to the slower pace of small town rural life. Driving the small utility trailer around to pick up lumber has forced me to take my time. Each morning I wake up to the neighbor’s roosters and do some stretches and meditate a bit (a promise I made to myself since I can never seem to do it at home). I’ve been keeping a construction journal that I write in as I have my morning tea and then head out to the “office” with my Frida Kahlo bag full of building books and laptop. The days this week were cool and rainy. The clouds broke long enough to get a glimpse of the “super moon” which I saw when I took Lucy, my parents’ dog, out. Looking over at the blueberry barn, I could see Dad processing the berries, the single light shining on him in the dark like an Edward Hopper painting, smells of woodsmoke and damp earth swirling about.
Progress on the floor during this week was slow and steady, with an emphasis on slow. Everything takes way longer than I think since I’m learning how to work with new tools and materials and think through some major design decisions. It all feels a bit awkward at this point. I’m exhausted by the end of each day and fall asleep listening to these little guys.
June 28: Interlude – wool, doors & friends
I took a day off building to go to Oregon Shepherd to pick up my wool insulation for my floor. I wanted to go there in person so that I could see how dense the wool should be, how much it needed to be “fluffed”. After a drive along the river to Rainier, Oregon, lush and green and bringing to mind the movie Stand By Me, I found the warehouse in the lee of one of the biggest lumber yards I’d ever seen. I thoroughly enjoyed meeting Margaret, who took me on a tour, little clumps of wool scutting about like a tribbles scene from Star Trek or dust bunnies gone rogue. Some of their wool comes from their farm in the Willamette Valley and some comes from trimmings that can’t be used at the Pendleton Woolen Mills (I found little bits of colored yarn mixed in with the wool when I was fluffing). She said they fill an order for a tiny house about once a week, in addition to their orders for bigger houses.
I then drove back to Portland to look for a front door at rebuilding centers. I was delighted to discover Salvage Works, a small but high quality shop in North Portland, which in addition to offering a good selection of reclaimed building materials, also features owner Preston Browning’s whimsical art and furniture creations. The manager, Teri Petersen, who was the Executive Director for SCRAP and is on the board of directors for the North Portland Tool Library, gave me a great tour and talked about how you find good quality salvaged goods. It was clear that everyone there has a passion for reclaiming and reusing building materials. It was very inspiring.
I then headed over to POD49 to hang out with Joan, Rita and their friend, Kathleen. I didn’t get a picture of their garden in full bloom but this is from last fall when I stayed in Gina’s Sweet Pea tiny house. Note the furniture made from salvaged materials that Rita made. She worked at the Rebuilding Center at one point and is now a green building consultant. It was so great to spend some time with the three of them and hear about all the cool things they are up to these days.
June 29-July 2: Heating up
After my brief respite, I realized that I had a week to go before the barn raising work party and I was nowhere near done with the floor, let alone having any walls built. Despite assurances from Dee not to worry, the work party will focus on whatever needs to get done, I felt panic welling up. There were endless discussions with my parents about rounding up enough help to flip the floor over after I’d put on the undercarriage and then, after a few additional steps, get it in the trailer. There were only tight windows of opportunity to make this all come together and it added significantly to the pressure.
On top of this, the temperatures had shot up into the 90s and 100s for several days, along with the humidity. By this time I was working long hours, sweat running into my eyes and dripping off my face. I managed to get the last piece of undercarriage screwed on while everyone was standing around waiting for me to finish, needing to get off to other appointments.
Even after I got through those particular days from hell, I completely underestimated how long things like the lining of my floor with housewrap would take (I’ll explain more about this in a future floor post). The first bay I lined took 2 ½ hours and I had seven more to do. Plus I knew it would take a long time to fluff the wool properly, not to mention bolting the frame into the trailer, adding the rigid board insulation around the sides, and cutting and attaching the subfloor. The pressure was building.
July 3: The three saving graces
Dee had been keeping tabs on me and, despite having just flown in from transporting and unloading a disassembled barn from Washington to Colorado, and being exhausted herself, showed up with Sam, her niece; Keeva, one of her landmates in Olympia; and all the wood for my walls in the back of her truck.
We proceeded to have an absolutely brilliant day of building. Sam and Keeva got all of the side pocket insulation in while Dee and I worked on adding nailers and cutting the ¾” plywood subfloor to fit. They saved me several days of work – I am deeply grateful for their help. Plus they were totally fun to work with!
After they left, I fluffed wool, pulling the tightly packed clumps apart so that they were more aerated and would insulate better. Mom came in and helped at one point and it was nice to sit and talk to her about wool and weaving. On one hand the fluffing was very meditative, a nice change of pace from the more strenuous carpentry, but by the sixth or seventh hour is was getting pretty tedious and gave me a lot of respect for people who have repetitive manual jobs, day after day. I stayed up until midnight fluffing until my tendons couldn’t take it anymore. This had been my pattern the last several days, working until midnight then up with the roosters at 5am. I was pretty much going on adrenaline at this point.
July 4: Falling apart
On the morning of the fourth, I woke up thinking about how complicated the floor is with all the various components, and how it was like the trunk of a body lying on its back with all these regulatory systems contained within for warmth, structural integrity and moisture transport. This made me think of Naj, who would sprawl out and sleep with all four legs in the air. I knew then that, despite not having any time to do anything too intricate, I had to put some kind of memento of Naj into the floor. I found a photo of him on my computer and had my dad print it out while I continued with several more hours of wool fluffing. Dad brought it out to me and he had very thoughtfully printed another one for me to keep. I totally lost it. Maudlin as it is, I put his photo on a heart quickly cut from a file folder and placed on the wool where he will always be stretched out in front of the hearth.
I got the first two pieces of subfloor screwed down, heaving the 70 lb 4′x8′ monsters awkwardly around, when I ran out of glue at 5:30pm on the Fourth of July. Everything was closed in town so I had to once again make the 45 minute round-trip drive out to Home Depot, getting back in time for a barbeque with the neighbors that I kept ducking out of to continue to screw more flooring down. Working alongside Naj, I was crying so hard I could barely see the screws. Utter exhaustion, I know, but also, as much as I liked the thought of him being the heart of the house, I felt like I was burying him and it brought up so much sadness. I avoided putting the last piece down until the last possible moment.
Unfortunately when I did this at 11:30pm, it didn’t fit. In my rushing, I had shifted the adjacent piece slightly. This led to many attempts, amid lots of salty swearing, of trying to pry it into place, saw off the offending overlap, planing, all to no avail. I finally realized I could tip it in that side first and jump on it until it wedged into the wheel well on the opposite side. Not ideal from an expansion standpoint but by that time I didn’t care; I was determined to get the floor done that night before I’d let myself go to sleep. By now I had blisters on my hand from the constant use of the impact driver.
July 5: Hitting the nonexistent wall
So here I was, the day before the barn raising, and I had no walls to raise despite my best intentions. I can’t remember when I was last that tired. I started having visions of the six participants looking around the empty barn. “What?” I’d say, “can’t you see the walls? They’re right there. Look harder. They are very fine walls and we’re going to raise them up.” I still had some deluded idea of getting one or two walls built that day so went weaving down the highway back to Home Depot where I just stood staring at complicated hardware and the empty rack of sheathing before returning nearly empty-handed. I was so tired I thought I was going to throw up. Dee’s other work party had just wrapped up so we talked about how to adapt things. We (I) scaled way back on our (my) expectations and decided to focus on wall framing and if we were really lucky, get one or two walls raised. Finally letting go of what I had envisioned, I got in an hour nap before Dee and Lina Menard, the other PAD instructor, arrived, followed later by Keeva and Sam. We spent the evening marking out the stud positions on the subfloor and crashed early.
July 6: Restoring my faith in humanity – the PAD barn raising work party
The big day finally had arrived. I had gotten some sleep so was feeling a bit better. Now I had to wrestle with my control issues. I have been all-consumed for the last many months with the design and planning of this tiny house and I was going to have to now let go. Here were six complete strangers with varying degrees of building experience about to start chopping away on my studs and hopefully framing up something resembling squared walls. As I greeted each one I was wondering how steady their hands were, how keen their eyes. Would I soon be hearing muffled cries of “whoops…oh well” and see the bubble in the level crammed up in one corner as it rested on my new Dr. Seuss walls?
But you know what? Each and every one there took immense care as they assembled the walls, treating them as if they were their own. The more seasoned builders helped out the less experienced ones and all were carefully overseen by Dee and Lina, both amazing instructors. Within the first hour, I had ceased to worry. In fact it was a relief to turn over the reins for a while and know that it was all being done up right.
And we had fun. We did the teacup stretch and ran crazily around the tiny house, then around the outside of the barn, snagging blueberries along the way. When we went to raise the long second wall, Sam G. put on the Ride of the Valkyries and the wall was lifted in place with great operatic flourish. To my utter astonishment, the rockstar team was able to get a third wall built. When it was raised in place, it initially looked like it wouldn’t fit under the top plate of the second wall. Sam G. climbed up on a ladder and gave it a couple good thumps with a hammer and it slid into place like an arm into its socket. What’s more it was perfectly square and plumb, which almost never happens. I was now feeling pretty sheepish about having doubted this wonderful crew. They are a bunch of beautiful, good-hearted human beings, setting off on their own tiny house journeys. Several talked about how empowered they now feel. I love that their energy is part of my house and hope that I can return the favor in some way.
Thoughts on the first two weeks
I’ll probably have more thoughts as I reflect back on this time, but here are some initial lessons learned:
- Try to go into your build with a sound mind and body (or at least a sound body).
- If you’re not experienced, everything takes at least five times longer than you think.
- Plan all that you can, but in the end you’re going to have to make some snap decisions and be okay with them. Learn to let go.
- Most of the time “roughly right” is good enough. Sometimes it means your last piece of subfloor won’t fit in right when you’ve used up the last of your pleasant personality reserves.
- Try not to put hard-and-fast deadlines on yourself (that helps with the sound mind part).
- And most importantly, it’s not about the house, it’s about the relationships.
I had already begun to suspect that a tiny house is way more than a place to live. In the work party wrap up, Keeva said she had never heard the word “community” mentioned so many times as in the last two days of tiny house building. There is something about tiny houses that draws people together and brings out the best in them. I’ve always been pretty independent and have a hard time asking for help. It’s been profoundly moving to see how willingly people have offered their time and assistance. None of us is an island. Most of us can’t build a house by ourselves. I probably feel more connected now than I have at any other point in my life, or maybe I’m just at a place in this mixed up, crazy world where I greatly value expressions of kindness and don’t take them for granted. It’s incredibly humbling and makes you think long and hard about how you want to move through the world.
I could never have gotten through the last two weeks without the support of friends and neighbors: Steffen, Joe, and Lynda; Sam and Keeva, who have pitched in with such good spirits; Lina, who has a great teaching and consulting path ahead of her and I can’t wait to see what she accomplishes; the fabulous work party crew: Sam G, Ben, Kelly, Dominique, Benn and Matt; my awesome parents, Scott and Cecelia, who have been very dear to open their home to this crazy project and put up with my roller coaster of emotions; and especially to Dee, good friend and mentor, who somehow manages to inspire and make me laugh harder than anyone I know.
With all of their help my little house has sprung to life:
Seeing it without the fourth wall reminded me of the post I wrote awhile back, Skunks and a tiny house valentine, that talks about the theater term of breaking the fourth wall, where the actors engage with the audience. Unwittingly, that post foreshadowed my experiences of the last couple weeks in terms of connecting with others and building community, and of course, my ongoing love affair with my tiny house.
With these three fantastic walls up, there is this incredible sense of awe when I step into my house, which smells of fresh-sawn wood. Pictures can’t capture it. I can feel so tangibly, after months of it existing only in my head and as a virtual model, what it will actually be like. This morning I ran in to get a notebook and for one brief moment I forgot about my house until I opened the barn door. It took my breath away.
And somewhere along the way I started to think and move like a carpenter. I have a long way to go yet but it is an amazing, transformative feeling.
There’s a funny addendum to the underlying camel explorer theme I’ve been writing about here and here. Turns out Dee, photographed by Betty Udesen, was featured in Rick Smolan and Jennifer Erwitt’s book, America At Home: A Close-Up Look at How We Live, in which multitudes of photographers were sent forth across the country to capture people in their homes. In addition, one of her photos was selected to be on the back cover. How wonderfully strange and interconnected is that?