Monthly Archives: March 2013

Making it easy and doing it right…

I pulled a lot of lumber and plywood out of a dumpster in Philadelphia. There was a new construction of a three-story home being built, and the dumpster on the street was brimming with clean useable cutoffs. If I had the time and patience – I told myself – I could build an entire house from these discarded materials. And I could. Anybody can.

Today, it was time to apply plywood to the bottom of the subfloor framing. This plywood is to create somewhat of a barrier to keep small animals out of the house, and also to create closed cavities between the joists where insulation will go. I began laying down pieces of recovered plywood and lining them up to see where I would need to cut. It wasn’t looking great.

Most of the cutoff sheets were narrower than 4′ and there would need to be a lot of cutting to make all of this work. While time is not such an issue, it also looked like a huge pain in the ass, and it didn’t even look structurally sound. My least favorite part was that the underside of the floor would be covered in a network of unsupported seams. I could add more wood or supports, but wait wait wait… this is getting silly. In the interest of doing things right the first time, I went out to the store and bought two more sheets of plywood. I had the third sheet that I needed left over from a previous project that I finished years ago.

So, what am I going to do with all of that great dumpster wood? Most of the 2×4 lumber will be cut down and used for all of the shorter pieces needed in the wall framing. The plywood would be great for… doghouses? Bird houses? I’m hoping that this tiny house isn’t the last thing I will be building. I’m hoping that after this house I will still have the desire and motivation to keep building. I’ve been inspired by the books that I’ve read, and I’m hoping that I’ve found a new hobby to keep me busy and alive for awhile.


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Pressure Treated Wood for Subfloor Framing?

Well, I got the floor framing finished, but I didn’t use pressure treated wood. It’s really one thing after another. While reading a slew of comments and questions on various forums – especially at “,” I found a lot of instruction and advice claiming that the floor framing should be built with pressure treated lumber. Anything wooden – the consensus seemed to be – within 6″-12″ from the ground, should be built with pressure treated lumber.

What happens if you use untreated lumber? I don’t know. Why do you need pressure treated if it’s protected from the elements? I don’t know. I also don’t know how much it matters, but it seemed like a setback. I asked the opinion of two experienced builders who I trust, and they both agreed it was not a big deal. I was told to paint it with an outdoor paint if I wanted to be extra careful. The major concern, I was told, is bugs not weather. If this is the case, then I’m also aware that Borax soap is something you can put on wood to keep bugs out of it.

So, I painted the subfloor framing. Moving forward.

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Typical Frustrations of an Inexperienced Builder.

Welp, I’ve got those skids in place, so now it’s time for the subfloor assembly. I decided on 2″x6″ joists for a hip-shot at being strong enough without overdoing it. The joists are only spanning eight feet, and they’re supported underneath by the pressure treated beams. Should be good.

Having no hands-on experience with carpentry or housebuilding leads to a lot of frustrating head-scratching moments. I routinely have questions which are so elementary in nature, I am almost embarrassed to form them in my head. Today’s difficulty was with stripping the heads of screws as I attempted to drive them through the band boards and into the joists. I was stripping screws and Phillips bits like no tomorrow.

I have a system for dealing with these situations: First, I throw a little temper tantrum to get warmed up. Next, I put everything down and go read some loosely-related information for a few hours while drinking coffee. Soon enough, my Adderall has worn off and I can begin preparations for sleep. Hopefully, by this point I will have found some kind of solution to try out the next day.

So, what’s the answer? Don’t be lazy about drilling pilot holes. Drill them. Then, when you’re driving the screws in using a drill – push WAY HARDER. Once I drilled pilot holes and really leaned into the work, everything was much smoother. It was a very simple solution which an experienced builder would barely think to mention. If I were on a job site, I could just look at someone more experienced and copy what they were doing. This will be a recurring theme. I’ve accepted this.



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Experimental Foundation With Author’s Recommendation Pending.

Foundations. There are at least several ways to go about making one. If your tiny house is going onto a trailer, then that’s your foundation. For people with land-tied tiny houses, you need something sturdy to build on. I chose the most convoluted method I could think of to save money.

A good option for a foundation would be to dig two trenches below the frost line, fill the pits with gravel, and then build the house on pressure treated wooden 6×6 or 4×6 skids which sit right on the gravel. That’s the best method I’ve seen for a compatible building site, but probably requires a truck to deliver gravel, and really a backhoe if you’re awesome enough. My method, however, cost $27.

My house will be sitting on cement deck blocks, yes – but the ground is soft at the building site, and I have concerns about the weight of the house pushing the blocks down into the soil. In a drier climate with harder soil, I would probably put the blocks on the ground and call it a day. For my soft-soil situation, I tried another approach.

There is a stream in the woods behind the building site. I took a shovel and six 5-gallon buckets and dug a whole lot of gravel out of the stream bed. Now we’re cooking. I used a hand-truck to get the ass-heavy buckets back to the site. Then a wheel fell off the hand-truck and I acted like a provoked rhinoceros and heaved the rest of the buckets the old fashioned asshole way. Kristin was helping, and she politely didn’t point out what an idiot I must look like when I get frustrated.


Next step: dig some holes. I dug six holes about the depth of a bucket, and then put gravel into the bottom of the holes for drainage. My plan was to bury the buckets up to about the brim and sit the deck blocks on top of the buckets – and for this to make sense, I would have to fill the buckets with something heavy and solid to turn them into a pillar of sorts. Cement.

I’m so cheap, I only bought three bags of cement. An 80lb bag is only $3 something, but I will not be oversold. I’m cheap… right up to the brink of being a fault.

I filled the buckets with gravel and rocks to take up space around the cement. I finished the buckets off with a flat and even layer of cement so the deck blocks would have something flat and solid to sit on. Boom. Concrete-ish pillars.

Trying to get the holes to an even depth was a real clownfest. I had to lift the heavy buckets in and out of the holes about a thousand times while checking for level by placing the blocks and skids on and off the buckets. Finally, I had both skids level, parallel, and at an even height. For $27.

If my bucket method doesn’t work perfectly, then I can lift a sinking corner of the house and add a shim over the top of the bucket’s concrete and under the deck block. A floor tile, a square of pressure treated plywood, or a concrete square ($1.92) would all work. So no big deal – just check for level once in awhile and shim up anything silly until it all settles.

Here’s the building site from a few steps back. This is somewhere I can definitely imagine living:

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Tiny House on Blocks.

I’m leaving Philadelphia, leaving my job, and building an 8’x12′ tiny house for me; my girlfriend, Kristin; and her tiny dog, Daisy. It’s going on my folks’ property out in the suburbs – tucked in beside the woods, in a shady little spot, and out of everyone’s face.

I’ve built several shelving units before – and a guitar case once, which I was proud of. Other than that, I don’t have carpentry experience. I can borrow almost all of the tools I will need from my brother-in-law, Karl, who is storing them at my parents’ house since he and my sister had a baby, and from my folks who watch HGTV and have a good selection of power tools themselves.

There are a lot of people building tiny houses on trailers. I thought that was a great idea, and maybe I would do that too. Then I found out that even a well-used tandem axle 7’x16′ trailer is about $1,500. Was I going to drive all over the USA with a house on a trailer? No. Hopefully I would never have to do that. Goodbye trailer, hello deck blocks.

I bought six deck blocks and widened the channels to fit 4″x6″x12′ pressure treated beams. Skids, as they call them. That was way cheaper, and if I ever need to move the house, I can hire someone. Or I can leave it right where it’s being built.

I don’t know what my budget is. Actually, sure I do. About $7,000. But I also just quit my job as a bicycle mechanic, and some of that money can’t get spent because I have to buy a couple thousand dollars worth of bicycle parts at a swap meet so I can sell them for more on eBay. Money is uncertain, but I do have some of it, and I’ll be getting more here and there.

So, a trailer is out. Anything fancy is out. If I can make something instead of buying it, then boom: I’ll do that. I’m learning all about “stick frame” building, professionally and specifically known as “platform framing.” I bought some books. I’m making a 3-D model of my plans using Google Sketchup, because I can’t draw for shit. I have time and books. I have a brother-in-law who has built a lot of houses, and my girlfriend’s father is also a D.I.Y. power player with the willingness to help. I’ll be doing mostly everything, because I want to learn all of these new skills, and that’s what I got all the books for.

My parents are being really good about this. I’m stringing them along by talking about how I’m thinking about going back to college. (And, in truth, I imagine I will – but I’m 30, and it’s a slow road.) The notion of permits and zoning and code has come up. I dismiss these queries and claim I’ll deal with whatever comes up, while enumerating the reasons why I expect smooth sailing: Nearly every other house on the street has a shed in the backyard that is larger than the house I will be building. We’ll be tucked right beside a private bit of wooded area, and out of view of all but one other house. (They’re nice people, our building site is far away from them, and we’re not even super visible.)

My parents have the last house in a cul-de-sac. My tiny house will not be visible from the road, and will be set back a good comfortable distance from the big house. In my mind, this will make us neighbors. We will visit often, but everybody gets their personal space. I’m living in the big house while the small one is being worked on, and even that has been a pleasant experience thus far.

I will be writing and posting pictures here about all aspects of the building process beginning with tacit approval and ending with… hopefully… a beautiful new home where I can live happily – at least for a time – and with the intention of working on projects and saving money.

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