Sheer madness, shear strength

Scottish sheep

Scottish sheep. Credit: George Gastin

When I was in film school, I wrote a short screenplay called Shear Madness about a sheep and a hairdresser who was waiting to hear if she had breast cancer. It was a strange, dark little serio-comedy; probably a good thing it didn’t go further than paper. What interested me was playing with various takes on the words shear/sheer and madness.

over the hedge

We took ourselves very seriously in film school.

I had to look up the terms for this kind of word play, which opened up a whole new esoteric world. According to Wikipedia: “In linguistics, a homonym is, in the strict sense, one of a group of words that share the same spelling and the same pronunciation but have different meanings. Thus homonyms are simultaneously homographs (words that share the same spelling, regardless of their pronunciation) and homophones (words that share the same pronunciation, regardless of their spelling). The state of being a homonym is called homonymy.” Try saying that three times fast! Homophones that are spelled differently are called heterographs. Confused yet?

In that weird cyclical nature of life, shear/sheer and madness – in all their heterographic and homonymic splendor – have come up again 17 years later as I find myself pondering plywood and wool for my tiny house.

Strong, light, warm – finding the right balance

Life on the road is hard on a tiny house. Being pulled down the highway subjects it to jarring and crosswinds that generate extreme shearing and twisting forces. As I learned in my PAD workshop, you need to build your house so that it can withstand a hurricane and an earthquake at the same time. (If the second little pig had just read Go House Go, he would have defeated the big bad wolf!)

There are several pieces to the shear-resistant puzzle, including how you attach the house to the trailer; the dimension and spacing of lumber used in framing; the types of tie-downs, braces, screws, nails and glue you use; and how you sheath the walls and roof. You have to create a total package that achieves the necessary strength and stability, while keeping it all as lightweight as you can.

Birke Multiplex

Birke Multiplex (from what I could interpret, this is a Danish brand of plywood. I love the photo!) Typically you use 3/8″ or 1/2″ plywood to sheath the walls and roof of a tiny house. Credit: Lutzeputz

Here’s a case in point that I’m currently struggling with:

My original design called for three fairly narrow windows in a row on one side of the house, plus french doors and two windows in my loft dormers. This is the side set up to allow the most passive solar heat into the house and provide lots of light.

When Dee reviewed my plans, she pointed out that this left little area to reinforce with sheathing to resist shear, and potentially could affect the structural integrity of the house. One solution is to add 3/8″ plywood on the inside wall. This will add weight, however. I could also decide to go with fewer windows and place them further from the corners. But then I have less light and solar gain. Decisions, decisions. It’s maddening.

Early Naj Haus drawing

Weighing the pros and cons of the three windows. The french doors already had to go in favor of a single door due to where the wheel well had to be placed.

At the same time I’m making sheathing, window and solar gain decisions, I’m also researching insulation types. One of the main attractions of building my own house is that I can choose what types of materials to use. While I may have to make some concessions here and there due to cost or lack of alternatives, for the most part I want to go as green and chemical-free as possible.

(Ironically, making houses highly energy efficient and air tight means that any off-gassing fumes have nowhere to go except into your lungs, unless there is some kind of venting or air exchange system. My parents just bought a house in an area that has radon naturally in the soils. This hasn’t been an issue over the years because older houses were more drafty. With the newer houses, radon testing has become very important. Fortunately their house tested out okay. I need to learn more about this in terms of tiny house design.)

At the moment, I’m leaning toward wool for insulation. It has pretty decent R-values in terms of insulating capability, which I hope will be sufficient since I don’t plan to be in super extreme cold. It’s treated with a non-toxic application of boric acid, which supposedly makes it fire- and pest-resistant. Though it costs a bit more than other options, it’s natural and renewable (shear for sheer warmth!) and I just love the idea of my house wearing a sweater.

Oregon Shepherd Natural Wool Insulation

Oregon Shepherd Natural Wool Insulation

into the sunny meadow
shorn sheep covered
with night cold

~ Jane Reichhold

(Okay, maybe I have to feel a little guilty about cold sheep…)

Tiny house bootcamp

Soft Shoulders

A photo I saved from Outside Magazine October 1990 – who knew it would fit so well in this context! Credit: Linda Dueurrena

It’s not just the strength and condition of my house I’m worried about. With my build looming ahead this summer, I realized I’d better get my bod in shape. While I have strong leg muscles and fairly good upper body strength, there’s definitely lots of room for improvement. It’s usually the little muscles and ligaments that spasm and shear when when you lift heavy objects and twist, and I know there’s going to be lots of lifting and twisting. So I joined the gym.

I got some free personal trainer sessions when I signed up. On my first day, I walked the two miles to the gym but misjudged the time and ended up having to run there. Having not run in the last year due to some injuries, I arrived hot and gasping. Joy, my new personal trainer, looked at me dispassionately and asked why I joined the gym. I told her I wanted to build a tiny house on wheels. She gave me a hard stare and then went on with the rest of her questions. By the end of our session, she was starting to get a twinkle in her eye. When I asked if I would be in good enough shape by this summer, she said, without batting an eye, “We will get you in perfect shape to build your tiny house.” Oh Joy, I could hug you.

Her approach seems to be working. I’ve lost about 10 pounds so far and the tendonitis in my elbow is much better. On the days I feel like flagging or bagging, I hear these little cheerleaders in my head chanting “ti-ny!…ti-ny!” How can you resist that?

Madness and motivation

Besides the fact that I’m listening to small voices no one else can hear, madness has come up in other forms around my tiny house adventure. Mostly it’s in the reflected look I get when I tell some people what I am doing. I get it. Not everyone can relate. (Just wait until I start saying I’m considering not having plumbing or a refrigerator!)

Most people are supportive though. It’s been surprising to find out which of my friends and acquaintances have been harboring thoughts of tiny houses themselves or are just really intrigued by the idea. They’re coming out of the woodwork. I found it’s an interesting new way to connect with people. A couple weeks ago I bumped into my friend Jean who I hadn’t seen in 17 years since film school. She totally got why I was excited about tiny houses. We were packed into a commuter train together and I gradually realized people were listening to me rattle on about zoning issues, living without a mortgage, etc. People were starting to smile. Before I knew it, a guy jumped in and starting talking about his tiny house on a trailer in the north bay. Not sure if the bystanders thought we were crazy or not but it was a bonding moment.

But speaking of mortgages and zoning, I realize that brings up further forms of madness. The madness of the world we live in. Also the kind where I’m just plain mad. I’m mad that so many people are having to make distressing, hard choices between working long hours or losing their homes. Whether it’s due to the scourge of predatory lenders or people’s own choices of buying more house than they can afford, I bemoan that our society relentlessly sends the message that bigger is better.

I’m mad that current zoning laws make it difficult to find a place to park a tiny house when we have such a shortage of affordable housing. I do understand that some of this has to do with issues of public health and safety, and not bringing down property values, but surely there is a way to find a middle ground? These issues can be addressed without forcing people to live in larger homes if they don’t want to. I am so glad to see that the dialogue for change is starting to happen across the country.

I’m also mad, dismayed, and frankly, heartbroken, to see our environment being polluted and destroyed due to our societal hunger for more and bigger and newer things, especially since those things rarely bring any real happiness. We need to do more to shift the focus away from material goods and more toward the much greater benefits of closer personal connections and healthy lands and waters. We’re all in this together. We need to learn to live more in balance with ourselves, those around us, and the earth that supports us. This philosophy is an integral part of the tiny house movement. It’s what I love about it.

I’m an amenable, go with the flow sort of person for the most part. I’m not by nature a contrary type, but I realize I may have inherited the southern backbone of steel from my sweet, gracious mother and grandmother, plus my father’s genes for throwing oneself into something wholeheartedly. The more people try to discourage me, it makes me want to do it even more. When it comes to building a tiny house, I realize I’ve never been so determined to do something despite what people think. To join the ranks of others who have gone before to show it can be done. To add my voice to the movement to redefine how we think about home and possessions and community and our place in the natural world.

Sheer strength. Sheer madness. Sheer determination. More gifts of the tiny house.


Categories: design, thoughts on tiny | Tags: , , , , , , | 8 Comments

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8 thoughts on “Sheer madness, shear strength

  1. Ash

    Hi Kate. I always enjoy reading your posts and am stockpiling them for future reference. While I never plan to build a tiny house on wheels, I am planning to build a small home in the next couple of years. I’m certain your research and insights will be invaluable. Thanks for sharing!
    I can’t remember if we ever discussed this, but have you read William Powers “Twelve By Twelve: A One-Room Cabin Off-the-Grid and Beyond the American Dream”? If not, I feel certain you would love it.

    • Hey Ash, glad they’re helpful. I have lots of other resources when you get to that point. You did mention the William Powers’ book but I haven’t tracked it down yet. Sounds like I should!

  2. Alison R

    Inspiring, entertaining, and informative, as all your posts are, Kate. Thanks again. I love reading them.

    Ash’s mention of 12 x 12 reminded me of that extraordinary documentary “Alone in the Wilderness” about Dick Proenneke, ultimate DIYer–you’ve probably seen it. If not, here’s an excerpt with footage of him building his one-room cabin in the Alaskan wilderness with hand tools:

  3. Alison R

    P.S. Pretty interesting that Proenneke filmed his own adventures with a camera and tripod. If only we’d made similar use of our expensive education in 16mm! Are you going to videotape your build?

  4. Hard to believe he packed it all in and did that on top of building his cabin and just surviving. Yes, it does put our experience into perspective. Not sure if I’m going to do full-on video documentation of my build. May do some but will definitely be recording it via photos.

  5. paula

    Hi, I really love your posts! We are considering having a tiny house built for us, and I’m obsessed with researching materials, both for aesthetics and health. You may be interested in looking at Prescriptions for a Healthy House by Paula Baker-Laporte. She talks about all sorts of materials and what health impacts they could have.

  6. Looks like a great resource – thanks! And good luck with all your research (I totally get the obsession with that!)

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