Author Archives: Naj Haus (Kate)

Naj Haus: a case study in wiring a tiny house


Trick or treat: a cobra masquerading as a cable, waiting to strike the unwary.

I never had any intention of wiring my tiny house myself. I knew I could learn it if I had to but when you’re building a house on your own there are some tasks you need to let go of to save your sanity. Since electricity scares the bejeezus out of me, it was a no-brainer to hire that one out. Then two things happened: I got an estimate for what it would cost (yikes!) and I met Todd Clay, the owner of Gorge Electric, who took an interest in my project and agreed to mentor me if I wanted to take it on myself. So that is how I came to be a reluctant electrician.

I am way behind on progress updates, but I realized that the primary purpose of this blog is to share the lessons I’ve learned while building Naj Haus and since the wiring experience was a pretty big deal, it’s worth backing up and going over it in more detail. Jumping into the world of electrical wiring as a complete novice required learning entire new vocabulary, tool, and skill sets, and a mind-boggling array of materials and safety precautions. Fortunately I had Todd to guide me with all of his expert advice, but he’s a busy guy and we could only arrange periodic check-ins and inspections; the rest of the time I was on my own. While the internet is a wealth of information, it’s all so piecemeal it can be hard to see the forest for the trees. As I gradually wove my way through the morass, it began to make more sense. I thought I would present my experience as a case study so that others might not have to go through the same torturous process of figuring out how all the pieces fit together.

There are several caveats. This is not a step-by-step instruction manual but more of a framework to help you understand where you should focus your own research. I’ll point out tips and resources I used, but you may find better ones. Keep in mind I am not licensed and you shouldn’t take anything I say as correct. Code varies from location to location and from year to year so you really need to work with someone qualified. While tiny houses on wheels do not require permits and inspections, you definitely want to make sure your house is wired properly, both for your safety and that of others, and to help get insurance if you want it.

What I want to do is describe the process I went through, tailored to my situation, and point out how you can adapt it to your own. I also want to highlight some of ways that wiring a tiny house is slightly different than wiring a traditional house, and what safety precautions you need to be aware of besides the obvious ones talked about in the internet links. Even if you’re not doing the wiring yourself, knowing about some of these issues will help you work with your electrician. Finally, I’ve added lots of photos since there are never enough visuals when you’re trying to stumble your way through something you haven’t done before! They may or may not be pertinent to your situation but if I can help save you some headbanging and muffled swearing, then it’s all worth it.

Here are the topics I touch on in the rest of this post (my posts are getting so long they need a table of contents!):

  1. Lighting design: why this is important in a tiny house & the list of principles that guided me
  2. Developing a wiring plan: questions to research & some resources for finding answers
  3. Circuit diagramming: an iterative process best done with all fixtures in hand
  4. Installing a circuit breaker box: creating an insulated thermal break & hiring out subtasks
  5. Getting acquainted with the world of electrical device boxes & some installation approaches:
    • What is a device box?
    • Different types: Old work vs new work, plastic vs metal, attachment alternatives, special purpose
    • Size matters: box fill capacity & why it’s particularly important in a tiny house
    • Adjustable boxes
    • Junction boxes
    • Exterior device box installation
    • Hanging light box installation
    • Fan or saddle boxes
    • Pancake box installation
    • Exterior light box installation
  6. Tips for rough-in wiring: drilling through studs, running & anchoring cable, nail plates
  7. Tips for making up boxes prior to finishing walls and installing devices: stripping wires, crimping ground wires, wire nut capacity, tucking them in
  8. Next phase: wiring devices into boxes & attaching fixtures…a couple initial tips
Some sconces I got, hanging in a temporary spot.

Some sconces I got, hanging in a temporary spot.

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“That is the texture of the tree; there is the warm gentle.”

silver lining rainbow

Silver lining on a bleak early spring day.

Love press of the kitchen and furniture
beautifully grown tree
past month is.

Okay, from the poem above, you probably think this is going to be about how I’ve finished my cabinetry and built-ins, perhaps my whole house. Given that it’s been four months since my last post, this would be a reasonable assumption, but alas, this is not the case. In fact, I am amazed at how slow my progress has been as I approach my two-year mark from when I started building. In my defense, the first year I was living in one state and building in another when I could get time off work, and this last year has been beset by obstacles. However, it hasn’t been wasted time. Much has been learned and I am very happy with what has been accomplished. Though more battle-worn and less starry-eyed, I’m still as excited as ever about my tiny house. Good thing, eh?

In honor of this anniversary, this post is a look back on some of what I’ve learned these last few months about patience, potential, and perseverance. There are also some observations about nature, design, aging, as well as a look at some of the actual work – my electrical wiring, sealing the windows gaps, and starting to fluff wool for insulation – that I did manage to do. But first, because I’m never content with mere reporting of my building steps, I want to explain the origins of the poem above and the others included in this post:

Exquisite corpses & found poems

You’ve probably played the parlor game favored by the Surrealists called Exquisite Corpse, where one person begins a drawing on a folded piece of paper and passes it to the next person who adds to it not knowing what the first person drew. This continues until the last person adds their contribution and the paper is unfolded to see what this blind, collaborative creative process produced, quite often something nonsensical or, ahem, surreal.

The idea can be applied to other art forms as well. In film school, we would pass a camera around not knowing what the previous filmmakers had filmed, resulting in typically disjointed, but interesting, short films highlighting our very different cinematic styles. Written stories or poems can also be developed this way. It’s somewhat similar to the found poetry that grew out of the Dadaist movement. Like with the exquisite corpses, the appeal of found poetry, or found art, is the fresh insights or unexpected synchronicities that occur when artists portray commonplace objects or text in a new light.

In my case, my exquisite corpse/found poetry turned out to be an inadvertent collaboration between KitoBito, a small Japanese woodworking company specializing in kitchen designs; Google translator; and myself. As I was recuperating and unable to build (see below), I spent time researching my cabinet design. Through a random search, I ended up on KitoBito’s site and fell in love with their work. But beyond giving me inspiration for my own designs, I made a delightful discovery when I saw what random beauty and thoughtful word play was being generated by the Google translator!  Continue reading

Categories: construction, design, tangents, thoughts on tiny | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

Live, love, loft

laying down the loft

Laying down the loft.  It must go down before it goes up.

Playing with verbs while attempting to be arty, I first titled this post without commas only to realize that “Live Love Loft” looked like an advertisement for a porn site. Ah, the power of punctuation!

Yesterday I wrote about the technical details of how I constructed my loft. Today’s post is a little more ethereal, an attempt to weave together my somewhat lofty (cough) thoughts during that slow, methodical process. And also to acknowledge Valentine’s Day in my own ambivalent way (whoever got to my site by searching for the words “valentine skunks” totally made my day!).

It all starts with the books I’m reading…

current reads

Put these on your reading list!

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The loft and the last few months

front row plugs

Loft in progress.

This post is sort of a photographic essay on how I constructed my loft, as well as brief update on the last few months. Time she flies (except on the gray, gloomy days, then she drags). There were the holidays, of course, and a couple short trips, a fantastic hike near Mount Rainier, housesitting/dog-sitting, getting on top of some health stuff, and now it’s blueberry pruning time, so helping out with that.

In terms of the house, a trip to IKEA to get my sink – and the subsequent discovery that it and the fridge wouldn’t play nicely in the space I had allotted for them – led to a drastic redesign of the area under my loft. Now that the interior work was getting real, I had to knuckle down and update my plans with the actual built dimensions and stud placement. Planning my anticipated electrical usage, fixture layout, and wiring also led to considerable time researching ventilation strategies. Met with Todd Clay, of Gorge Electric, who has been wonderful about guiding me through all things electrical. Hopefully I’ll start work on that next week. I also sourced some lights, and the wood and wool I’ll need to finish the walls. Here are some pics of the last few months, followed by a detailed look at the loft construction:

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The art of installing marmoleum


The master (Ben Kelso) at work.

This was originally part of a larger post on color and ambiance, but since that was getting too unwieldy, I pulled this more technical section out as a separate piece. If you’re considering marmoleum as a flooring option, read on…

I’ve read lots of discussion about whether to put your floor in early so that you don’t need to work around interior walls and built-ins or put it in later so that there’s less risk of it getting damaged. I decided to start with my flooring and chose marmoleum. As much as I love hardwood floors, I was concerned about the excess weight. Also, in a tiny house, you are constantly walking back and forth over the same areas so there is more wear-and-tear than in a bigger house. Marmoleum is a very tough, natural product that will be good for wet Northwest winters and future pets, plus it comes in super fantastic colors. Here are some key highlights for the health- and environmentally-conscious:

  • USDA-certified bio-based product and all natural ingredients (linseed oil, limestone, tree rosin, wood flour, natural mineral pigments and jute)
  • SMART-certified
  • Allergy and Asthma Friendly-certified, and also antibacterial (it’s used in hospitals). See here for more on health aspects of marmoleum.
  • Warranted for 25 years residential and 5 years commercial
  • Has the lowest environmental footprint of any flooring
  • Carries the most independent Life Cycle Assessment (LCA)-based environmental labels and certifications

Also, the adhesive, Sustain 885, is non-toxic, zero-VOC and won’t off-gas; it’s safe for those with chemical sensitivities. Read this buyers guide for more information about marmoleum types and installation.

If you’re going the sheet route, it is 79″ wide which fit seamlessly between my wheel wells (tip: a lot of flooring places sell discounted remnants that are often long enough for a tiny house). Because my house extends wider than the wheel wells, I was faced with adding additional pieces on either side, which meant dealing with seams along the edges (it also gives you the opportunity to add more color!). This can get tricky so I decided to hire someone to do the installation. However, I was able to save a lot of money by doing all the prep work myself.   Continue reading

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On snails, stillness, symbiosis and siding

tiny grass dreaming

Definitely a case of gained in translation (hat tip to Lisa for this). I think I will make a plaque to hang on my tiny house door. Credit:

My friend Alison turned me on to this fascinating book, The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey, which I highly recommend. It represents all that I love about natural history and the power of observation and reflection. From her website:

In The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating, Elisabeth Tova Bailey tells the inspiring and intimate story of her uncommon encounter with a Neohelix albolabris—a common forest snail. While an illness keeps her bedridden, Bailey watches as the snail takes up residence on her nightstand. Intrigued by its molluscan anatomy, cryptic defenses, clear decision making ability, hydraulic locomotion, and mysterious courtship activities, Bailey becomes an astute and amused observer, providing an engaging look into the curious life of this overlooked and underappreciated small animal. She comes to a greater understanding of the interconnections between species and her own human place in the natural world. The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating is a remarkable journey of survival and resilience, showing us how a small part of the natural world illuminates our own human existence.

“Bailey’s unexpected journey with a gastropod is a beautiful meditation on life, nature and time, and a poignant reminder of how the only measure of any of this is what we do with it.” —Tania Aebi, author of Maiden Voyage

“An exquisite meditation on the restorative connection between nature and humans . . . the writing is pristine and clear, with sentences of stunning lyrical beauty . . . Bailey’s slim book is as richly layered as the soil she lays down in the snail’s terrarium: loamy, potent, and regenerative.” —Huffington Post


A September of stillness

While I had nowhere near the same level of illness that Elisabeth had to contend with, I was completely drained after the events of the summer (see June, July and August posts). In early September, my parents left for most of the month, leaving me in charge of their house, the blueberry farm, an old creaky dog, and my uncle and aunt’s young cat that was recovering from a broken leg. Continue reading

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Summer of transitions: AUGUST

peace flags

“Make tea, not war” – peace flags made by my visiting nephew at Peace Camp.

So after the craziness of June and July, I was now a full-time Oregonian – but the craziness continued. I had a month before I turned 50 and I was determined to move my house outside and spend my first night in it on my birthday. To do this, I had to get my trim and siding up. It seemed doable, but I should know better by now than to impose a deadline on myself.

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Summer of transitions: JULY

morning glories

Morning glories at Point Reyes, new blossoms replacing the old.

As I mentioned in the first part of this series (JUNE), the month of July was all about wrapping up my old life in California and making the big move back to Oregon. This post is more an album of memories for me and may or may not be of any interest to anyone else, though there are some connections to tiny houses scattered throughout. I’ve been having a hard time writing this since it is very bittersweet and emotionally complicated, so I’m just going to post it as is and get back to more of a focus on my tiny house with the next post. Continue reading

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Summer of transitions: JUNE

wheelwell transition

One of the many transitions I dealt with this summer: the space between the sheathing and the wheel well.

This summer has been intense. Many significant life changes and lots of activity on the tiny house front as I tried to hit some self-imposed deadlines. Way too much stress, and the blog has suffered as a result. But now I’m catching my breath again and realizing a major update is in order. As I pulled photos to include, I realized that the update was going to be excessive even by my epic post standards, so I’m breaking it down into three separate entries. This one covers the month of June. July and August to follow shortly.

For those of you not familiar with my story, the quick background is that I started building a tiny house in Oregon while still living in California. I’ve spent the last year traveling back and forth doing discrete building stints. I originally thought I would move my house down to the Bay Area while I continued at my job as a grant and project manager for the Coastal Conservancy, a state agency where I’ve been for the last 25 years. However, as I got deeper into the process of building, it jumpstarted a whole re-evaluation of where I was in my life and where I wanted to be. I was about to turn 50, I wanted out of the city and the constraints of my desk job, and I really wanted to get back to my native Oregon, closer to nature and family. While normally I wouldn’t be able to live off the tiny pension I would get with early retirement, the low expenses of the tiny house should make it possible for me to piece together an alternative lifestyle I hadn’t thought possible. I’ll still need to work some (I’m retiring from state service, not retiring altogether), but by having my basic needs covered, I have much more flexibility in what I choose to do and how I incorporate my work life with the rest of my life.

All of those life changes and transitions happened this summer. It’s been a crazy time: I was simultaneously making several 12-hour trips up to either build or move belongings, transferring major work projects to new staff, cleaning out and organizing work files, saying my goodbyes to the places I’ve lived and the dear friends I’ve worked and played with for the last 25 years, coming to grips with leaving and starting over in a familiar but new place and a much different lifestyle, learning the ropes of life on a blueberry farm, getting my head around the idea of “retiring” (and all the endless bureaucratic forms that entailed!), building new friendships and connections in my home-to-be, packing up and cleaning my apartment, and actually moving and getting settled in with all that requires. On top of this, I set myself a goal of finishing the exterior of my house so that by the end of August I could move it out to it’s initial parking spot behind the barn and spend my 50th birthday night in it.

These next three posts chronicle some of that experience, as seen primarily from a tiny house perspective. Looking over the photos, I realize that in some cases I was too busy living to get pics of key moments and friends so there are some missing events. I also noticed how much we tend to only photograph the good times (of which there were many in the midst of all the chaos). What you don’t see in these posts are the agonies of indecision about how to proceed with the next step, the many months of elevated cortisol levels from too much stress, the pouring sweat from climbing up and down ladders in 100 degree weather, the few times I broke down in tears of frustration when things broke or didn’t go together as planned or deadlines passed unmet, the sore muscles, late nights, and utter exhaustion. But then, really, who wants to look at those photos? Just know that those untaken pics really should be part of this to balance what appears to be a perfectly graceful handling of major life changes. Lesson: social media never really tells the full story.  Continue reading

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Tassajara, twigs & ten tiny thoughts

tassajara gate 2014

Entrance gate to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center. Zenshinji means “Zen Heart-Mind Temple”.

This is another epic post that interweaves several themes lately on my mind: visceral and spiritual design, pursuing passion, connectedness, wabi sabi, reflection, simplicity and, as always, art, nature and transformations. If you are designing or about to start construction on a tiny house, and are a hurried and pragmatic sort, skip down to the 10 tiny thoughts section; otherwise, come take a meditative stroll with me and see why Tassajara has been such a formative part of my tiny house journey…

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