A Story of (my) Stuff

© johannes - Fotolia.comFor me, a smaller space will enable a certain kind of simplicity in living. This will also require some tough decisions. We will of course need to begin taking a serious look at reducing stuff.

I’ve never been very fond of moving, and our last move was a very painful and rushed experience, so it will be best to plan ahead now. New beginnings allow a redefinition of what makes a comfortable home.

So here’s the plan: Make a list of all the must haves in the new tiny house, and everything else will be sold, given away, donated, etc. The biggest yard sale (tag sale, rummage sale, garage sale, attic sale, or whatever else you may call it) I have ever had will happen this spring, and the plan is to donate all the proceeds to charity. That will make parting with some things much, much easier.

It will feel really good to reduce the burden of stuff – less to maintain, less to clean, less to replace due to planned obsolescence. Things accumulate over time. Just remember one thing. I am not judging anyone. I am simply evaluating my own situation.

Some people I’ve met have tiny and maintainable junk drawers, while some other folks have a tendency toward hoarding. A few close people to me have series disorders. I still love them, however every time I visit, it makes me rethink my own situation. I’m somewhere in the middle of that spectrum, and it feels exhausting. Even just this week, I needed to prepare to move my office desk to another workstation, and I realized that I have had a file cabinet full of papers a nick knacks accumulating over the last four years that don’t really help me with my job, nor do I appreciate having as many of the decorative items around. So, a lot of it hit the recycle bins.

I’ve seen how little I can get away with – first year of college, I had so little in my dorm room, – snacks, music, clothes, and very little else – and guess what? I survived. In contrast, over the years I’ve also had difficulty keeping things like garages and basements from filling up with detritus. When finally dealing with a mess that gets out of control, it does feel good. The stuff in our houses can be like goldfish in a bowl, regardless of how much wealth someone has, it seems really common to have more and more as the amount of space you have grows.

The smallest apartment I’ve had was about 28 m² (300 SF), and the largest house was about 167m² (1800 SF) – still far under the national average. The smaller places I’ve lived don’t always feel better, and that’s a matter of how they’re designed. Natural light, storage, layout, quality of finishes – all of that will be completely within my control, this time. Oh, and any future ‘stuff’ will be purchased with an eye towards versatility, durability, and environmental impact across all stages of the life cycle.

The last box I should have to pack for a house move will be 2440 x 6100 x 2590 mm (8 x 20 x 8.5 ft), made of steel, and will not require unpacking when arriving at a new destination; wherever in the world that may be. Have a yard you want to sell, or rent or barter? I’ll need a place to park the new container home when it’s finished.

The irony of it all; most of the stuff I have likely arrived on a store shelf by way of shipping container in the first place. This story is just beginning. When the big sale/giveaway time happens, I’ll be sure to share some key stats and photos.

If you’ve not had the chance, I recommend you check out the short 21 minute documentary, “The Story of Stuff” from 2007. It’s free to stream. My takeaway, if nothing else, is that I’ve developed a heightened sense of awareness the next time I buy something. Perhaps you will as well. We’re all in the same closed ecosystem together.

Watch “The Story of Stuff” directly on YouTube.

Small Box Retailers

permit?How do you construct a new shopping mall in 3 months, within the heart of earthquake rattled Christchurch, New Zealand? With a literal boatload of shipping containers, that’s what. The project is called Re:START. Thanks so much to my dear friend and colleague Phil Read of @ReadThomasBIM for… wait, “holding back showing me this”? LOL. It was worth the wait.

I like looking outside, thinking outside the box as it were, to discover inspiration an apply innovative ideas.  This has definitely inspired me to continue to seek ways to incorporate my modern design tastes, while still managing to incorporate a relaxed, cozy environment.

Watch the video – ReStart: Christchurch Shipping Container Mall, or for more information on this project, visit http://www.restart.org.nz

It’s not a Building, or is it?

permit?“Papers, please”.

That’s the last thing I want to hear from a code official or investigator – after the project begins. So, we’re going to do this the right way. Plan, plan, plan. In order to plan, we must first do a significant amount of research. I do know one thing, (OK, I know a few things, however this one thing is pertinent): Permanent structures require a foundation, which I will not have. So what do we call a shipping container home that rides/rests on wheels then? A travel trailer, like an Airstream? A mobile home? A modular house? Recreational Vehicle (RV)? I must admit, this part gives me a headache. We’ll walk through a few concerns.

For those who have built a tiny house on wheels before me, the question comes up early in the process – What is the legal designation of the home? This greatly affects the permitting process, where it can be ‘parked’, the ability or even necessity to move frequently, ability to travel on the open road, and with what codes it must comply. Certain designations don’t allow full-time living. I must, therefore, determine what it most important to me. What do I want to achieve with this project?

This Will Take a Lot of Energy

The research, that is. The home will use so little, it may as well be considered a shed. Oh, right. Sorry, it’s too big to be a shed in the city of Seattle, as 11 m² (120 sf) is the max size for an un-permitted shed. Let’s talk about the codes for a moment. Building codes are written with very specific concerns – health, safety and welfare, and most states have adopted the 2012 International Energy Conservation Code (IECC) to address the growing concerns around energy use. As a building, if that were the route to take, the project would have to meet very stringent regulations, especially regarding energy efficiency of systems and insulation values. It’s still unclear to me whether this is applicable in this situation, however let’s imagine what would happen if more people started building smaller to save on both first costs and energy.

From the ‘Department of Common Sense’: it should not be surprising that a very small structure has less volume of air to heat and cool than it’s more traditional counterpart, so will no doubt use less energy. However, most energy codes are written with a one-size-fits-many approach. Several tiny homes on wheels have proven energy bills – when they’re not off-grid – which typically use about $25-40 per month for all energy costs. So, even for permanent structures, it would simply make sense to build smaller to save money. Many local jurisdictions have minimum sizes for structures which prohibit very small homes, which can artificially drive up the amount of cost for the home. It can take many years of lobbying, however laws and local codes are meant to be altered as society changes.

To illustrate how size does matter, a report by EarthAdvantage that confirms the above assumptions. The report, very lengthily titled “A Life Cycle Approach to Prioritizing Methods of Preventing Waste from the Residential Construction Sector in the State of Oregon”, helps identify the following critical facts:

  • Of all the 30 identified methods of reducing waste or reusing materials in residential construction, reducing the size of a home is the most significant factor in reducing it’s overall energy consumption.
  • Reducing home size by 50 percent results in a projected 36 percent reduction in lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions.
  • Over 80 percent of greenhouse gas emissions over a home’s 70-year life occur during occupancy and are attributed to electricity and fuel consumption.
Source: {For more detailed information about this report, refer to the official newswire when it was originally released in 2010. Note, the actual research report can be found at this EarthAdvantage.org link. Earlier links in the newswire article no longer function.}

Due to this report’s findings the Oregon Reach Code, an optional green building code, the state of Oregon is now beginning to consider size as an important factor when determining the sustainability of a home. Not that this information helps me directly in Washington State, as I plan to stay here for now.

And More Research

I plan to have a consultation with one of the local tiny house builders, familiar with my region. This should arm me well with the information necessary to navigate the legal waters of not just how to permit the project, it will also ensure I don’t under or over-insulate – as every millimeter of floor space counts. It’s important to nail down these details before completing a design, as 2590mm (8′-6″) is the maximum width of my project to be able to travel any U.S. road without a “wide-load” permit. It might be interesting if the insulation could be on the exterior, freeing up more space on the interior.

There are also several seminars around North America that broadly cover how-to topics around the logistics, concepts and hands-on.

Another good resource is this e-book “Cracking The Code: a guide to building codes & zoning for tiny houses”

If everything works out as planned, I may be attending the Tiny House Conference in North Carolina this April.


An Early Concept Model


I want to share a peek at one of the studies I am working on. While the model doesn’t show the interiors, you might be able to see hints of some of the details. A few surprises are yet in store related to this design… which I’ll refine a bit over the rest of the week.

Yes, there’s something of a loft developing, which is a great way to both provide an additional sleeping area, as well as access to the roof. The maximum height above the road when traveling on a US roadway is 13′-4″. By creating a popup loft, much like a camper van, some additional headroom can be gained – while also not requiring a special permit to take it for a trip.

If you’re interested, this sketch model was created while on my flight back to Seattle. The software is FormIt, an Autodesk app that’s both free, and currently runs on iPad and Android tablets.




OK, I’m inspired.

I landed in Denver a few hours ago for a Design Technology Summit, and noticed this…

20140205-160259.jpg Trade Deficit photo by Scott Beale

From the photographer: ““Trade Deficit”, a series of shipping container sculptures by Joseph Riché located in the RiNo district of Denver.”

Here’s a great article on the sculpture in the Denver post from the 2009 dedication.

Layers of Wood and Glue


Plywood seems like a simple technology. It is just alternating layers of wood and glue, right? A wood pulp sandwich. Mmmm, sandwich. Like sandwiches, not all are created equal.

It’s all about the ingredients. I used to only pay attention to the face veneer. What species? What quality? Is it clear or with knots? Rough, smooth or finely sanded? As I think more about this house project, the density of the core layer, the weight of the panel, and the type of glue used have become a consideration. Is the wood certified as sustainably harvested?

Since I am most concerned about indoor air quality (IAQ), the glue has become a real concern. Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) – as the name suggests, are something you don’t want, or should seriously reduce, in a building. Glues, adhesives (not the same thing), paint, sealants, fire-retardants, insulation and many other common building materials all can contain VOCs. Some carpets, and even furniture have been known for contributing to acute ill-effects.

An unacceptable accumulation of VOCs in a space is called Sick Building Syndrome by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). Like new car smell, the off-gassing of some of these materials can be immediately noticeable, take a very long time to finish their bombardment and certainly are not something I want in my new home.

After doing some research on materials, I thought it would be interesting to share this. This weekend I was gathering some components to finish up a dog house project. Of all places, Home Depot carries a series of plywood products under the brand PureBond®, that are formaldehyde-free. These are manufactured by Columbia Forest Products in the U.S.

If you’re considering a furniture, casework or tiny home project and want to avoid the off-gassing nature of this chemical, this might be a good choice. These are CARB P2 compliant and contributes to LEED® EQ 4.4 and other green building standards.

source: http://homedepotpurebond.com

{images: “Buttered Toast Sandwich” – by NPR | “Vegas Strip Burger” – (cc) Sean | other images – by Columbia Forest Products – http://www.columbiaforestproducts.com}

Waxing Brasil

Brasil seems like an interesting place. Some of the world’s best beaches, music you cannot help but sway your feet to (almost all of it – I’m looking at you Pitbull), architectural experimentation in Brasília through the late Oscar Niemeyer who died (still working) at 105 years young in 2012, and after 60 years, the last VW camper van rolled off the assembly line just a few weeks ago. Although, as we have seen during the run up to the 2014 FIFA World Cup, there’s a great divide between the haves and have-nots. Sometimes the tension breaks free of it’s delicate balance and you have political unrest. These are a people with passions. The world’s eye being on this country will most certainly turn out to be a good thing, as I am ever hopeful of the strength of the human spirit and desire towards justice and equality.

On to the houses…

(click to see as a slide show)

All this energy seems to be helping the construction industry, (independent of the games) and there is much fresh experimentation. It’s encouraging to see prefab in Brasil taking off. The confluence of technology and desire for newness is shattering the traditional stereotypes of modular or pre-fab housing, while managing to achieve a minimalism and spareness that celebrates both nature and shelter. Here are three examples: Mini Mod, Innotrade Modular and the off-the-grid Solar Decathlon Europe project from Team Brasil, Ekó House. Perhaps the United States is hoarding all the world’s spare shipping containers; as these examples are all of a similar ISO container modular dimension, they are all fabricated as bespoke boxes.

What’s interesting is the cultural, material and stylistic diversity of the Team Brasil strategy that manages to pull together a really well-considered concept. Although they did not win, all the entries were pretty fantastic.

Here’s a video tour of design concepts behind the Ekó house (in English).

Ekó House from EkóHouse on Vimeo.

{Credits: Top image – The Metropolitan Cathedral, located in Brasília, Brasil – by Oscar Niemeyer, 1970 – photographer Victor Soares/ABr. 2003 – source Wikimedia Commons | slides: Mini Mod – 1 through 6 – by MAPA (MAAM Studioparalelo) http://mapaarq.com, photography by Leonardo Finotti ©photo@leonardofinotti.com | Innotrade Modular – 7 through 9 – www.innotrademodular.br | Ekó House – 10 through 12 – by Team Brasil http://ekobrasil.org/

The Miter Box Tiny house



Here’s an example of a tiny house on wheels, not a container, however the details are very interesting.  It’s called the Miter Box, due to its clean corners, and was completed last summer by Shelter Wise LLC out of Portland, Oregon. In fact, you can buy the plans on the Portland Alternative Dwelling (PAD) website.  At 8.36m2 (90sf), not including the sleeping loft, it’s a fair bit smaller than what I’m planning.  The limited material palette indoors and out makes this house seem larger, although that could be partially attributed to the necessity to use wide angle lenses when photographing these spaces.


After finding this little gem, I’m starting to come around to the idea of a “wet bath” , where the whole room is a shower.  It saves a great deal of space.  In doing more research; it’s becoming clear that dealing with moisture in such a small structure can become a challenge.  Even the moisture from cooking and exhaling while asleep! Being able to seal off the bathroom from the rest of the house while the fan deals with shower steam is critical to winning the fight against condensation in the wall cavity and mold. Just another thing to keep reminding myself when it comes time to detail my final design. Note to self: looking into roof air-conditioner or dehumidifier in addition to fans.


Excitingly, there’s a tiny house hotel in Portland where this model currently resides, listed as ‘The Pearl’, along with a couple others from different sources. The next time I am in Portland, I will make it a point to visit and stay here – Caravan Hotel.

via: Tiny House Talk

{Note: original article had the area incorrectly stated at 11.15m2 (120sf), which has been corrected above}