Thursday, February 16, 2012

My Amateur Drafting Solution

Home & Landscape Design Professional
I took drafting for a couple years in high school. Later I took printing classes at the same high school, and landscape drafting and a couple introductory AutoCAD classes in college. Just enough to get simple computer drafting basics down, and appreciate how deeply complex big architectural drawings can be. And let's not forget how hard it is to get something printed properly!

Since I began designing houses as a kid I've sketched them on paper, but they get lost and tend to lay around unfinished. Sometimes I need to make changes but if I change anything it looks a mess and I can't stand it so I just start over. Plus there's the limitations on sharing and sending paper documents, and storing one of a kind originals safely. I needed to capture my ideas in finished form electronically, so I could tweak and refine endlessly and share the results. I needed something simple enough to get me through the process a lot faster than sketching, and affordable enough to make sense in my budget.

A floor plan for a simple food cart.
I shopped around, read reviews, and  in the end I bought Punch! Home & Landscape Design Professional NexGen3. I had used an earlier version of their affordable architectural drafting program years ago and found it functional and a million miles easier than AutoCAD for quick projects. The only reason it wasn't working for us anymore was because of incompatibility with our current Windows operating system, which caused it to run slowly. This newer version is quick, simple, and does most of what I want it to, and I'm happy I spent the money. Roof-lines are hard to get exactly right and I'm still having trouble with 3D; changing the color of objects, making built in cabinetry, and creating good 3D views that show interior details well. I also played around with exterior house trim but I couldn’t get it to go where I wanted and I couldn't take it off once I put it on. I'm still tinkering and learning a little each day.

Here's a mockup of a larger portable kitchen design.
The only major issue I've had since I began using this newer version is printing. In the old version, you could export your drawings as a bitmap. It wasn't ideal, but I could open the bitmap with photo editing software, save it in a more compact and common file type and print and share it as needed. Now I can only export into .dfx or.dwg drawings, or VRML or 3D still images. As I understand it, .dfx is an open source CAD data file format developed by AutoDesk, and .dwg is the native file format in AutoCAD ( feel free to correct me if I'm wrong, my information is years old and may be out of date). To print those without sending them to my local architectural printing service to be run on their plotters, I'd have to run them through a converter, like AutoCAD DWG to Image Converter, one of many that can be gotten free from CNET and other download sites. Otherwise I'm reduced to taking screen shots of my drawings, which is how I produced my sample images.

This stumbling block is a little deeper than simply an issue of getting a print out or a useable file showing your design. In AutoCAD world, all lines have a default line weight (of .01 back in the day when I learned it). For working purposes, all lines display on the screen at readable thickness proportional to the screen you're looking at. It's only when you try to print your work that the near unreadable tiny lines become apparent. As an AutoCAD beginner, you go back and change all your line weights and from then on you start your drawings with a template that establishes weights for all the most common types of objects and lines used in your drawings. I didn't have to deal with all this on the older simpler version, and now it appears I will have to go back to the work flow of creating templates and always opening them up to start a new drawing.

My concept for a nearly ground floor bed design.
There's an animation export option as well, but the menu item is grayed out for me. I imagine that's because I haven't seen how to capture an animation, so there are no animation files to export. It implies that if I took the time to go through the tutorials and learn more about this program I could "record" three dimensional animated walk-through "videos", which would be great.

Punch offers several price points you can buy into for home design software, one with just the basics, one with more of a landscape library, others with more 3D capability, and even a couple of Mac versions,  Home Design Studio for $149.99 and Home Design Studio Pro for $249.99, which I have yet to try. I see they also have specialized software just for bathrooms, kitchens, landscapes, and interiors. I'm still not entirely sure I'm using all the features I paid for at the $179 version I bought, but I was seduced by the idea of the library of 3D objects, ability to edit and create my own 3D stuff, and somewhat realistic 3D rendering. I want to fully decorate and accessorize my designs in 3D because it's an immensely powerful way to road test design ideas without making so many costly real world mistakes. Obviously the library of objects contains a lot of huge things, but it's relatively easy to re-size them to tiny house proportions. I haven't tried my hand at using the 3D object design tool to create a true scale trailer for a tiny house foundation yet. That will be an upcoming project as time allows. So far I just draft my houses 20" or so off the ground.

To someone who has never had any computer drafting experience at all, this could be a workable solution for you, but expect to use the tutorials, be patient, and take your time. If you've used other drafting programs in the past I would say this package presents a nice balance of capability and simplicity. Ultimately, I haven't yet tried to create a set of plans to apply for a building permit, much less actually build from, and therein lies the true test.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Outdoor Living Room

I think a lot about living in a "just right" house. In many ways my dream house has become pretty minimal over its evolution, in terms of size, features, and square footage. I have no desire for a big bedroom, a luxurious sunken tub, or a huge farmhouse sink. In other ways my standards have become much higher, because I know the ingredients of a house so much more intimately now than I ever have before. The same way I can never go back to boxed stuffing or second rate drip coffee in my kitchen, I will never again be able to ignore poor insulation, inept window placement, awkward trim, and misaligned cabinetry.

One thing I know for sure about my dream house; it must include a nice deck big enough to socialize on. An outdoor living room is an essential ingredient in a quality life for me, so I feel really lucky that there's so much cool outdoor furniture these days. It sure has come a long way since my childhood! Do you remember aluminum framed deck chairs with seats made of wraparound rubbery vinyl tubes? Horror.

Here's the comfy adorable set at Home Depot that got me thinking about my "dream deck" again last night:

Tiny House Heaters; Popular and Obscure Options

Tiny house owners face the delightful challenge of needing too little heat, far less than the output most typical house heating systems are designed for. The heating system will also need to fit in a much smaller space. Because of those factors the lineup of heating solutions for tiny houses is a little limited, but there are several good options. Here’s a quick rundown of the most popular and often discussed choices.

The choice list starts with boat heaters; love their safety features we know are tested in the harshest conditions.

Newport P-9000
For its small size, efficiency, and the sight of flames through the glass window the sleek stainless steel Dickinson Marine Newport P-9000 propane fireplace, currently priced at $1118.55, gets top marks. Solid fuel heaters like the nostalgic Sardine by Marine Stove have won many hearts, even at $1090 with up to a six month delivery time. It’s gorgeous, more than a lifespan durable and now available with an optional glass door insert as well. Although I don’t see any in their product lineups with a heating capacity of less than 1000 square feet, which would be extreme overkill in a well insulated tiny house, little wood burning cabin stoves have a devoted following. The elegant Jøtul F 602 or the more modern F 370 have devotees, as well as Morsø, known for their charming squirrel embossed on the side panels of their small traditional wood stove. I can’t even find prices online for the European models, but you can find them at fireplace specialty stores. I get the hint they’re expensive from the way people talk about them.

All of these superstars have great looks in their various styles and perform well. They’re definitely valued for bringing the ambiance of fire to the tiny house experience as well as their time tested designs and legendary durability. I’ve been soaking up the info about the newer Kimberly Stove from Unforgettable Fire and have developed quite a crush on it, despite the huge price tag.

Kimberly Stove
I think the Kimberly's unique advantages are significant enough to justify the cost to someone looking to solve space constraints and fuel challenges; petite size, portable weight, one burner cook-top, fuel flexibility (wood, wood charcoal, coal, compressed {paraffin free} logs, and even saltwater driftwood), and super efficient gas re-burning action. Even better, this is an independent small business, and their invention is manufactured by craftsman in the US. I love the indie spirit in the new Kimberly Stove video so much, I’m looking for an excuse - ahem, I mean opportunity - to buy one. I want to test it and touch it!
Wave 8 RV Catalytic Safety heater

At the more utilitarian end of the spectrum you find propane catalytic heaters for RVs like the Wave 8 by Olympian. It’s not pretty to look at, but it’s familiar, affordable at around $200, and it is certainly up to the task. Electric space heaters like this little Sunbeam Ceramic Small Room Heater can do the job well in a tiny package at an amazing price, around $40. We might shy away from relying on electricity for heat instinctively, yet for small well-insulated spaces electric heat can often be the simplest, most efficient choice. I personally use the Sunbeam to keep my houses in progress from getting too cold at night once they’re closed and it works perfectly at a reasonable cost. By the way, my climate is not that cold but a reviewer on Amazon (at the above link) with lots of electric heater experience who said “it heats one of my 15x15 rooms to 70 degrees when it is 15 degrees outside, and it hasn't broken, frozen-up, stalled, malfunctioned in ANY way yet!”

If you have adequate air movement through your little domicile and don’t mind heating from the bathroom outward, a combination bathroom ventilation fan, light, and heater in the ceiling may provide all the warmth needed in milder climates. They can be a little spendy, but they’re doing triple duty in one compact package, so go ahead and splurge on one with a quieter fan. Home Depot offers this NuTone Bath Fan with Light and 1500W Heater for about $200, but I’ve heard there are others with timers, which would be great. Also from the bathroom heater world, little wall mounted heaters for 100 to 200 square feet could be mounted on any exterior wall to provide ductless whole house forced air heat.

My newest discovery is a small vent free wall hung propane fireplace that looks like the flames are dancing in a deep frame. I just got one from Northern Tool but I haven’t tested it yet. It only has two settings - “on” and “off” - and it runs off a little camping stove bottle that runs out approximately every four hours of operation. We got a fitting that allows you to refill the small bottle from your bigger tanks, and that’s obviously an awesome alternative to recycling (or worse throwing away) endless little steel canisters. It produces 6,000 BTUs and proclaims 99% efficiency. If we like it after we test it for a while, we might try to figure out a way to plumb it to an LP line permanently if it can be done safely. If you’re planning to run a vent free indoor propane heater, know that water vapor is a by-product of LP combustion. Be aware of resulting higher moisture levels and make sure you provide fresh air ventilation and install a carbon monoxide alarm (always a good idea anyway). We’ll also be careful to warm the place up before bedtime, so we can sleep safely with the fireplace off. Vent free seems like a good idea with its high efficiency, and the one we got retails at about $230 - though of course there are bigger and fancier ones that cost a lot more.

99% efficient wall hung vent free fireplace by ProCom
I’ve been researching underfloor radiant heat as an option for tiny houses, but the topic is way too large to include in this quick heating hit list, so I'll just summarize my findings so far. Radiant underfloor heating is possible in a tiny house both electrically and hydronically (with recirculating water in tubes), however it will be very expensive compared to the cheaper alternatives listed above, and there will almost certainly be some disappointing feasibility and user experience issues that I will go into in a later post.

So that’s my quick round up of some of the heating options for tiny houses. Look for more on underfloor heating, coming soon. Leave a comment with any heater types I may have missed that you think are worth exploring. Share what you’ve been using and what you like or don’t like about it. Have a toasty warm winter day!