Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Sheltering a Tiny House in Progress in Unexpected Rain

Rain at the end of June!

Yesterday was my son's fourth birthday. We have a big party planned for him later, but for now we just had cake and family presents after pizza at home with immediate family. Still, it was a hectic day, since it coincided with his first ever swimming lesson and a lot of urgent work we're doing to finalize the tiny house and sell it.

Then another coincidence got added to the pile. A half inch of rain was predicted for last night, and we have our second tiny house framed and sub-floored, all exposed to the elements. Usually it's unnecessary to shelter a construction site in the summer here (in Sonoma County) because in our Mediterranean climate rain is rare between May and September. But the satellite pictures on the news were pretty threatening, so after cleaning up the debris and getting the kids involved with some new toys in the living room, three of us adults went out into the windy evening to carefully wrap house number two up with thick black plastic. I figure maybe my description of the process could help somebody else out in the same position. When we had to do it last year we had no idea where to begin and it became so frustrating I thought we might start smacking each other.

Now, I don't know how many houses you've wrapped, but it can be tricky. First there's the fitting: you struggle to hold up long bulky lengths of folded up plastic to eyeball the length. You mentally add some excess to allow for overlap and to make it easier to muscle it all the way around the structure, which suddenly doesn't seem as tiny. In our case we were fortunate to have quite a lot of plastic left over from wrapping the first house in a previous unseasonable rain, so we could be generous with our overage.

There are many ways to wrap a house, I'm sure, but here's what worked well for us (this time). First we wrapped the rafter tails nearest the corners in duct tape to dull the edges so they didn't cut right through the plastic. Then we ran one wall high width of plastic around the whole house horizontally and stapled it to some of the framing. Imagine this layer as the frosting on the sides of a cake. Try to run a couple vertical rows of staples, at least one up each end, so the plastic is supported in more than one place. Staples should be roughly a foot apart, and you don't want it so loose the plastic gapes between fasteners, nor do you want it so tight it's straining at the fasteners.

Then we set up a huge piece that would cover the top of the gable roof from end to end with enough overlap drooping off each end to close off the open gable. It was almost twice the total length of the house. My husband Dylan got up in the rafters and I stood on a ladder next to the house. I fed him the long leading edge so he could go back and forth dragging it slowly over the roof ridge. I had to stand under the plastic and hold the sheet away from the rafter tails along the side, watching for it to catch on any projecting wood so I could ease it over.

When we had the long piece draped over the top of the roof and hanging down evenly on both sides, we weighted the edges with clamps so it wouldn't blow or slide off while we got our straps over the top. We used heavy duty ratchet straps like three belts to hold the whole thing down. You can use smaller ones, but you want to keep the "belts" right on top of the 2x4s and the wider stiffer straps make it a lot easier. Dylan stood on one side and threw the lighter hook end over the top of the roof near the leading (windward) edge first. We caught it on the other side, found a secure place for the hook in the C channel steel under the trailer, and then he gently ratcheted the strap into place while we both kept our respective sides centered on the nearest 2 x 4 for good support. The tension is minimal, but just enough to stay fixed in place. Then we repeated the process on the other end. Right away we could see the wind getting under the plastic in the middle and making it billow out like a giant black sail, so we put a third one right in the center.

To close off the gable end, we folded over the draping edge, placed a small piece of 2 x 4 over the seam, and drove three screws through it into the framing stiffener, which is a temporary bit that we'll take off before we put on the wall sheathing. The 2 x 4 spreads the holding force out over a wide flat area so the plastic is a lot less likely to tear in the wind.

It was a pain because of the wind and the cumbersome plastic, but right after we finished we had that giddy little kid feeling of having made a fort, and we wanted to make up excuses to hang out in there. I'm surprised we didn't end up dragging out some sleeping bags and camping out. The rain started sometime in the middle of the night, and is still coming down now, giving us a steady but moderate soaking. Our garden loves this deep natural watering, but it scares me to think of how high the fuel load will be later this season.

As of this morning, the house interior is completely dry. Mission accomplished!

Friday, June 24, 2011

Mothering a Tiny House

Oh how I love this tiny house. We've put so much thought into every detail, and every piece and part of it has been selected with such care. I've caressed every surface so many times and watched it pass through so many stages. It's my third child, and it's grown up so fast.

Now it's like a teenager graduating from high school. We're cleaning it, selecting a few choice items of adornment for its presentation to the world, writing up a resume of sorts to describe all its many features and benefits. This part - preparing to actually sell the house - is bittersweet. I suspected all along that I would feel conflicted when it came time to send our first house out into the world but I won't let my attachment to it change my plans. This is an investment, and it has to get out there, charm and woo people, represent our potential, change hearts and minds, and ultimately be sold for enough money to finance our next build and feed our company so it too can grow.

Last night my husband and I took more photos of the house. The kitchen cabinet faces aren't quite complete, but they look almost finished so he hung them up so we could get a look at them with the painted panels. He'll have to take them down to add a trim detail, put on the final coat of clear finish, and attach the pulls.

I like to hang out in the house and go through the motions of using it to test for functionality. I put my face down in the sink as if I'm washing it, stand in the shower and pretend to wash my hair - all without turning on the water, of course. I even sit on the plastic covered toilet and look out the window. If my son was two (instead of a big huge four) I would stick him in the kitchen sink and wash him just to prove I could.

Some people might think it's weird, but at the point where a baby's transitioning between crawling and walking and they have pretty good motor control, the kitchen sink is the easiest place for a quick bath. At that stage my kids needed a thorough washing after every meal and every (snail squishing dirt sampling) visit to the garden. It's just not feasible to run a full bath every time they need one. The kitchen sink is at waist level for mom, and allows for a quick yet thorough cleaning and rinsing without using much water. In this case, the stainless steel sink I chose has all the right features - smooth surfaces, rounded corners, a faucet the swivels to the side so it doesn't project out over the bowl, and a separate pull out sprayer.

While I goofed around inside, Dylan set up a photo shoot outside. He put the camera on a tripod and adjusted the interior lights strategically for some timed exposures. Some of them are gorgeous - buttery light and evocative angles. My favorite is one he took from outside the office window that looks right through the house and out the front door.

It's time for me to practice the same kind of gentle distancing that us moms have to cultivate when kids are growing up and need to venture out into more independent lives of their own. I remind myself that though I love it, the house is not mine. Like our children, these projects come into the world through us, but they do not belong to us. They are born from our creative spirit, and we mold, direct, and equip them to go freely out into the world to do great things. So go forth and shelter, comfort, protect, and inspire people as the functional and beautiful dwelling that you are, tiny house! I hope the public loves you a fraction as much as I do, for if they do you will be adored and appreciated greatly.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Frolic in the Standing Seams; Buying a Metal Roof for a Tiny House

I did a lot of research when I started thinking about the tiny house roof. Immediately I could see it would be one of my bigger expenses and a huge influence on the ultimate aesthetic of the house. Conventional affordable roofing options like asphalt shingles offered no advantages in appearance, durability, wind resistance (for towing), or recyclability. It was clear that metal was the best option in meeting each of these priorities. Time to dive into the world of metal roofing research!

Metal panels are measured in gauges, and just like wire, the lower the gauge number, the thicker the metal. Galvanized corrugated 29 gauge steel roofing panels, like these at Cox Hardware and Lumber can be had for $7 or $8 per panel, but 26 gauge steel standing seam panels from Metal Sales Manufacturing coated in CoolRoof colorfast paint keep the house cooler in summer, reduce the heat island effect, and are more leak resistant, weather proof, wind proof, long lasting, and - to me - attractive.

There was a lot of information to digest. On the technical spectrum, I delved into coatings and their properties and how they can be engineered to offer better solar reflectance and heat emissivity. I learned a lot about the cool roof concept at the Energy Star Cool Roofs and Emissivity page.

I also read up on installation issues like oilcanning, explained here by Sheffield Metals International. Apparently the roof panels get torqued slightly as they are installed or as they shift with wood shrinkage and swelling, causing a wavy appearance to the sheets. There are ways to reduce oilcanning, but because it’s caused by several factors, it’s almost always present to some degree under certain conditions in any metal roof. Oilcanning can come from manufacturing stresses or installation stresses like carrying panels unevenly so they bend and ripple, or overtightening fasteners so they strain and warp the panels. It also arises from inevitable physical realities; roof support structures are typically made by hand of wood and it’s not possible for all their surfaces to be 100% perfectly straight, level, and uniform. The metal reps don’t admit this, but from experience I can tell you that the roof components themselves have a measurable (and sometimes significant) amount of variance in their dimensions as well. Then there’s the wide variety of angles at which the sunlight and our sight lines can hit the metal, and the inevitable expansion and contraction in any material under extreme temperatures and weather conditions. All told, it’s impossible to install a metal roof with any flat surfaces in such a way that it will never have the tension on the fasteners that leads to oilcanning.

Blog entries, like this one from the Building Gypsy Rose Blog, offered me an experiential view of what it was like to be a metal roof consumer, and it seemed there were a lot of cautionary tales out there. Every roof story I read came from a screwball construction comedy; wrong parts being delivered, wrong angles or dimensions, metal being delivered in the wrong amounts, parts being delivered damaged, and promised delivery dates being pressed beyond all reason. Therefore I was very cautious about where I would order my roof.

When I looked into sourcing the roof panels, I found out metal roof panels are generally produced on computerized rolling machines and all the companies offered a similar range of products. Differentiation between options is about selecting gauge, seam type, fastener preference, panel texture, and coating properties, then picking an equivalent product from the nearest reliable reseller. In my case, there are only a couple manufacturers close enough to be practical, and each of them supply the same product line to all the different stores all over town. After talking with about every reseller in the area - Home Depot, Lowe’s, Friedman’s, and Meade Clark - I settled on Metal Sales 12” wide 26 gauge standing seam panels from Allied Building Products. All the quotes I got were expensive, but Allied’s price matched the lowest of them, and they were a specialist with an office where I could see the product on their demos roofs outside and then place my order at a desk with an experienced pro who knew the product line inside and out.

The process was a little complicated and it took about a half hour to place my order. I brought our master builder Rand with me because he’s installed metal roofing before, he would be installing this roof, and he has a much better knack for remembering measurements and specs than I do. Although he and I had both tried to anticipate and research all the decisions involved, we still ran into choices we hadn’t thought about and information we didn’t have. For example, I originally picked a flat panel option for the expanses of metal between each standing seam. Later, in discussion with our sales guy John, I discovered that the lightly striated panel reduces the visibility of any potential oil canning. Functionality won out over my slight aesthetic preference for the “cleaner” looking flat panels, and I was convinced to choose striations. In the end the metal roofing order (including panels, edge and peak trim, and specialized fasteners) cost about $1200 and I spent another $200 on sealant, adhesive, and high temperature gooey underlayment film called StormGuard by GAF.

John at Allied promised us the roof would arrive in eight days, and on day eight I got a call. He regrets to inform me that my order got damaged on the delivery truck and he had to refuse the whole thing. I told him after the stories I read about other people's roofing experiences I would have been shocked if the first delivery went off without a hitch! Fortunately he got my order rushed through that week's production line at Metal Sales. My complete and correct order arrived the following Wednesday without incident. No further hijinks! Now that’s its installed, I absolutely love it. I’m glad I did all that research, because I feel confident that in the end all our care has resulted in a roof that will keep the house safe cool and comfortable, maintain a beautiful look for 50 years, remain weatherproof for 100 years, and can be easily recycled at the end of its lifespan.

If you’ve got your mind on a metal roof project of your own, stay tuned for a separate discussion of the standing seam roof installation, coming soon.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Custom Cabinetry; the Process for a Buyer

When I brought a fine cabinet maker into my team on a contract basis to create the custom cabinets for the tiny house, I had no idea what I was in for. Fortunately I was able to hire someone I knew (my brother in law) Keith Pankow, whom I trusted and felt perfectly comfortable with. I let him know what a newb I was without concern or hesitation, and he explained the process to me and gave me the info I needed to make informed decisions. Here’s how the whole splendid adventure unfolded.

First I gave him with a crude scale conceptual drawing. I was acquainted with the tools and conventions of the trade from drafting classes I took in high school and college, which made things a lot easier. Still, it was hard to visualize the true physical size of the spaces I was drawing on paper in a meaningful way.

The spaces were small and I needed to make the most of every inch, so I brainstormed and talked through the design several times with Rand, the builder, before I ever went to paper. I thought about the way I use my kitchen and measured some of my go to items to help me size the cabinets and drawers. The most innovative idea, for drawers in the toe kick area, came from Rand.

Here’s the first scale drawing I made of the face of the kitchen. In the drafting trade these are known as elevation drawings. To the left is the outline of the kitchen sink, projecting down into the cabinet below it. In the middle is the counterhigh refrigerator, followed by a narrow cabinet (perfect for cookie sheets) separating it from the stove and oven. Under the oven are two cabinet doors. I specified (verbally) that this space needed to be spanned without a support member inside so it would be possible to put wider items in it. To the right of the stove is a little more counter space, with two upper drawers and a cabinet below. Across the bottom, toe kick drawers make use of the space below the cabinetry.

Notice this drawing doesn’t include hardware or any suggestions of what the faces, doors, joints, or supports will look like. The idea at this stage is to decide how the space is best divided, then let the professional determine support, engineering, and joinery. In my notes I called out that I drew the dividing walls ½ inch thick, only to help make sense of my measurements so things add up. I didn't need to choose or draw external hardware for him to start the build, because the  client chooses that later. There are a mind boggling array of options for every personal aesthetic and sense of functionality.

After I shared these drawings with Keith, the next stage was marrying my ideas to the realities of materials measurements and methods. The standard height for toe kicks is four inches, and when I walk up to a counter with hiking boots on I realize why - so my toe kick height was raised to four inches. The two upper drawers I had specified as four and five inches deep would be more functional and look more unified if they both became six inches deep instead. This minimizes the height of the cabinet below it a bit, but I admit after I see it all put together I’m so glad I trusted Keith on this one. It’s far more practical and better this way visually. The final structural change was that Keith specified ¾ inch thick material for all dividing walls for its greater rigidity and durability.

Then we talked about cabinet faces. Looking to the simplicity of the rest of the interior for inspiration, we selected a spartan shaker style. At first I thought I’d go with wood finished in a natural tone, but when I decided on the butcher block countertop I began to feel that painting the cabinets would provide a wonderful counterpoint to the natural wood that covered every other surface in the house. We settled on what Keith called “paint grade” and made plans to set up a temporary spray booth and spray paint the cabinet faces - a process the construction guys in my circle call "shooting". Note we're talking about a spraygun and compressor here, not canned spray paint. If cans are involved the guys refer to it as "rattlecanning" (as in, "If the rust on the truck is bothering you that much, I'll just rattlecan it tomorrow after work, and you won't even know it was there.") After final measurements inside the house were taken (several times) the building began.

Keith completed about ninety percent of the job in his shop over a couple days, then brought the almost finished pieces to me at our build site. He fitted the last details right inside the tiny house. One toe-kick drawer had to be adjusted to allow a little more room for the plumbing under the kitchen sink, but he was able to cut and refit it quickly. The following week he returned with my custom vertical grain douglas fir front door, with four thick panes of glass in a mullioned window at the top.

After I got several good long looks at the cabinets with their doors hung and drawers inserted, I felt the wood frames were too lovely to cover up with paint. Not everyone agrees, but I just love natural wood. In the end I decided Keith's idea of paint grade was accurate when it came to the interior panels, but that I would leave the outer frames bare with just a durable protective clear coat over the top. That's left my husband with the job of meticulously hand priming and painting the flat inner panels and finishing all the exposed wood. He had to devise an elaborate clamping scheme to get the cabinets to rest on edge so he could finish the edges without having them stick to the table and get messed up. I chose a color similar to that of green tea ice cream for the cabinetry panels.

Here's a photo of the faces in progress. The fellows at Plaza Paints recommended oil based primer because water based primers make the grains and particles that make up the wood surface swell unevenly, bringing up unwanted surface texture. At this point the wood has been finished and the panels have been primed and panted with three thin coats of latex paint. Each coat of paint has to dry for several hours. The final stage is to let the latex layers cure for several weeks, then coat with a protective clear coat of polyurethane for the best possible durability and washability.

Ultimately the cabinetry expert, Keith Pankow, got everything done beautifully, made it function perfectly, and I was delighted. I paid him well, and he was worth every penny.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Real Time Meets Real Life

Like so many, I had the best intentions when I started this blog. I intended to report several times a week about the progress of our tiny house building project, thereby justifying the name "Real Time Real Tiny". However, real life has intervened and made blog maintenance impossible for quite a while.

Now it's summertime and our tiny gem is nearly finished. We're washing the windows, finishing the cabinet doors, and cleaning it up today. The only things left to finish are the full height shelves, interior closet doors, the loft ladder, and the steel nosing to protect the edges of the lofts. I can't wait to clean up, install the cabinet and closet doors, and see the whole interior in all its finished glory.

Right now there's rosin paper protecting the bamboo floor, plastic covering the toilet, and various other bits of construction detritus littering the inside. Yet still, when I go inside, I simply love it. I wish I could keep it myself. I would use it as an office and studio where I can get away from the household and work in peace. As a child I never understood the Woolfian quote about a woman needing a room of her own to write fiction. Now, as an adult with two children and many demands on my time and attention I finally appreciate the full implications of her statement. I need a room of my own to get anything done that isn't directly related to caring for my family!

I also fantasize about having it as a kind of housing insurance policy in these uncertain economic times. If things get crazy, we could live in our beautifully crafted Lusby. Space would be tight, but it would be better than renting a hotel room by the week or living in a car.