On writing, and an intended quick update…

If you didn’t figure it out yet, that last post was just a silly April Fools. I do love me some donuts, though especially mini vegan donuts like those found at Mighty-O Donuts in Seattle. I digress… So, I’ve been doing some traveling (which I plan to share more pictures and possible a video or two soon), some thinking, a bit of building, starting a few new hobbies, and lately – although it may not appear that way – a lot more writing. Some of you may not realize that I’ve been freelance writing professionally for a couple of years now in the architecture world. Sure, go see, it’s not all boring software stuff – OK, most of it might be to my readers here. The most interesting assignment to date was to write about the state of women in the architecture profession, by attending an event in Seattle: Carve Your Own Path and Other Takeaways From AIA WLS 2015. As an advocate of equity in the working world across all spectra, this was a very challenging and hopefully respectful look at the challenges, opportunities and success stories for women within work and home life. I share this not because I want to boast, but because my incredibly talented and trusting editor, Wanda Lau, gave me the opportunity to stretch myself out of a comfort zone of technical writing. Being surrounded by and inspired by many excellent writers, you know who you are, I have found it a new passion and have sought further opportunities to “use my words” and hope one day to approach their poetic prose.

And so, begins another new chapter in my life of being a tiny house enthusiast. In addition to the writing I mentioned above, I’ve now begun contributing to Tiny House Magazine. Full-disclosure: there are now affiliate links on this page, including the magazine mentioned. The goal is to do my best to hace minimal impact on your reading, and will only display products and services which I would support. Please feel free to let me know if you have an issue with this direction.


One of my housemates, Malissa Tack, encouraged me to reach out to the editors of the magazine to share my voice. She’s also written a bit about our Tiny Acre Collective, and a few more recent photos of my BentoBox are in there. Yes, I’ll post more about progress, hopefully soon. In the current issue, number 41, I have a review of Ryan Mitchell’s new book, Tiny Houses Built with Recycled Materials in which (I’m quoting myself, and that seems so strange),

The book successfully stitches together a narrative
from these stories, gathered through interviews
conducted by author Mitchell and Amy Annette
Henion, in a way that keeps everything fresh and
interesting. The homes are all very different
expressions, while some have been made with
similar materials, all have a unique character…

.

And I’m already started on another article for the next issue. Stay tuned for more goodness. You can subscribe to the magazine as a PDF, for Kindle, or through iBooks for Apple devices (link on the home page).  As the tiny house community continues to grow in leaps and bounds, malong the opportunities for other new voices to join in, and the content in the magazine will always be fresh.

home-page-book-8-turning-tinyOne other thing I’ve been up to in the tiny house world; I’ve contributed to a nearly released book book (whuut?), named Turning Tiny, along with dozens of other contributors. I’m actually most excited to read all their stories and it nearly escaped my noticed that I’m about to become a published author. My brain melted, just a little. It’s amazing to feel starstruck when you then realize, we’re all stars in our own right for dreaming of something new. Some are in different stages of the dream. I just never want to wake from it – it feels like a warm mug of cocoa. I hope you all get your cocoa, with #vegan marshmallows, of course. 😉

 

What’s the Story?

For me, the Tiny House Jamboree was less about the houses than the people, more specifically their stories. I recall after seeing Small is Beautiful at a different event, (it was also screened at the Jamboree) speaking with Ben Campbell. Featured as one of four stories in the film, his experiences were very relevant. I expressed how appreciative I was of him sharing his experiences and that I connected with him on several levels. Yes, there were tears during and after the film. Ben’s gracious and humble reply was, and I’m paraphrasing, “Everyone has a story to tell. It could have been anyone in my place and the film would have been also amazing and interesting”. After meeting so many amazing folks at the Jamboree and beyond, I believe he’s spot on.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, I whole heartedly recommend it. I even screened it in the theater in May with about 150 people. Afterward, the Australian director Jeremy Beasley (yes, he was still in the area and made a special trip to Seattle for the event I planned) told some wonderful stories about making the film. He was definitely passionate about the making of this film and explained how it wasn’t really about the houses at all. It turned out to be about relationships – the family we have and the ones we make around us. We even had a Q&A session with some tiny house owners to share their stories and help talk about what it’s like to go tiny in Washington State.

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Jeremy Beasley giving the thumbs up approval of the Maiden Mansion (pocketmansions.com)
Sean and Jeremy excited for the event.
My birthday selfie with the crowd filing into the theater. It was also the first theater the movie had played, as he gleefully explained.
Q&A Session
Q&A panel discussion, from Left to Right: Brittany Yunker, Kerry Alexander, Jeremy Beasley, Hannah Crabtree, Malissa and Christopher Tack

Back to the Jamboree

During the event weekend this occurred to me; In driving through seven big Western states (in as quickly as one and a half days), I realized I wasn’t actually going halfway across the country to see houses. The houses on display were mostly all commercially built houses, sponsoring the event to help make it more exciting and also keep it free for attendees. Many folks did want to see pictures, because they are looking for inspiration, so lines were long. Yes, the houses were all beautiful in different ways, had some excellent details and design ideas, and being tiny houses, are cute as little buttons. They just didn’t have stories yet.

Story telling was a big part of the Tiny House Jamboree, with main stage presentations happening throughout the three-day event. One of my favorite photos above, courtesy of Darin Zaruba, of EcoCabins and organizer of the Jamboree, taken during the day two panel discussion Q&A, where topics ranged from building experiences to the social implications of living in a tiny house community, and the environment, Darin Zaruba (not pictured), Lee Pera, Andrew Morrison, Lina Menard, and Zack Giffin answered eloquently and with brutal honesty. Oh, and that’s Bobby Alcorn in the background, one of the event volunteer organizers, who I’ve had some great conversations with over beer. The people and their stories onstage and off were what jazzed me. This kept my batteries charged, despite my tendency to sleep much less than normal for the five nights I spent in Colorado Springs.

Andrew ‘Drew’ Odom talked about being a digital nomad. Which I seem to have become in my career, when I first became a consultant in 2006 and now as a digital leader in my firm. Yes, I hunkered down in a coffee shop, utilizing the free wi-fi and electricity needed to stay connected to all of you to micro blog and Instagram when I drafted this post so many weeks ago. Digital Nomadicism, a term that I previously associated with road warriors and consultants seems to be an increasing trend with the advent of telecommuting. Tiny house living can support and encourage this way of balancing work and home. Some are doing it as part of a corporate job, others freelance or working more non-traditionally. It isn’t just limited to bloggers. Tiny Houses really enable more flexibility in career, as well as allow one to outsource their life, using services available in the community that would otherwise be ignored. That story really resonated with me not just because of my past, but also because of some things that I’m planning in the very near future. Uh, uhh. Spoilers, sweeties.

I truly believe that tiny houses enable more social interaction with the members of the community and because the idea is so new to many of us, our families and friends (or detractors, sometimes one in the same) and we tend to be located all around the globe, those social networks tend toward the digital as well. I’ve found a nice blend between the two and have formed some amazing connections IRL (in real life) with other enthusiasts. They all have stories, sometimes about their homes, or the ones they dream of, how they are planning or building, what happened as they were discussing this lifestyle choice in their neighborhoods and cities. All very fascinating.

There’s a YouTube channel available now for those who could not attend to see some highlights of the amazing event or like me want to relive the memories. Alexis Stephens & Christian Parsons of Tiny House Expedition, traveling the country in their own tiny house on wheels (THoW) to spread the word about tiny houses, filmed a significant amount of material from the event and the first few of their series of five are available now, here.

Now that I’ve been home in Seattle for a while and had time to reflect, I spent some time to return to this – one of many stories I have in my draft folder. I hope to get them all out there and share with you. I mentioned that new houses, fresh  from the factory floor are still awaiting for their stories. The most exciting house stories for that trip, it turned out were the houses I saw as I was heading home. All of the visits completely serendipitous. In a follow-up post soon, I’ll share three stories about touring and chats I’ve had with these great people. Until then, keep in touch. I enjoy hearing from you.

One Night of Tiny House Bliss

Monday night, I tried on my first Tiny House for size. That’s right, I went to the store, picked one out my size and went into the fitting room. OK, actually spent the night at the Caravan Tiny House Hotel in the Northwest area of Portland, Oregon.

Tiny Vacation

It was wonderful. I stayed at the Kangablue, which is the newest arrival. At only 15 SM (160 Square Feet) plus a sleeping loft, it was just right. Surprisingly roomy. I will write-up a more comprehensive review soon, as I seemed to have caught a flu-like thing… I always want to see too much of a new city, and invariably exhaust myself. I wish I had planned a week or two in this hotel, and I could have tried them all. Below is a sampling of pictures for your enjoyment. You can read more about the six tiny houses available to stay in part of the Caravan here: http://tinyhousehotel.com

Foundations

A solid foundation is extremely important for any house. We have this thing called ‘gravity’ with which we must contend. Traditionally, house foundations are made of stone or concrete. I am not a traditionalist. In this case, that foundation happens to have wheels. A solid foundation of knowledge also allows one to build experience. Foundations symbolize beginnings. Up until now, this project has been mostly about a dream, a dream that is about to become a little closer to reality.

I am on my way to Charlotte, North Carolina drawn by forces that feel stronger than the pull of gravity. I’m defying gravity right now in an airplane. One pull, is toward the Tiny House Conference. There will be photographing of tiny homes that I tour, and writing about the people I will meet and skills I will learn.

While in Charlotte, I also will be visiting a childhood home of mine in the Pineville neighborhood. It has been a long time since I lived in that house, some 32 years. That house, in all its 1970’s modern ranch and open-floor-plan glory, helped form the foundation, the seeds from which my desire to become an architect sprouted. I sketched my first ideas of sustainable homes (and Dungeons and Dragons maps) while living there.

I also will be spending time with my good friend and former colleague, Phil Read, whom I have formed a bond with over design, classic cars, technology and a shared enjoyment of discomforting ambiguous political satire. He does not live in a tiny house, and that’s alright with me.

At the conference, in addition to blogging and tweeting, hope to find the right knowledge and camaraderie to help get my project off to the right start. Also, if anyone can help me procure the right trailer to haul my container, that would be an excellent beginning. Here’s one possible example, available through ChassisKing out of Florida. It has the twist locks to receive a standard ISO shipping container. I may need a higher weight capacity, depending on the final design. This is a good start.

Coffee in a Box?

Box O'Joe

Did you know they serve coffee in a box now? No, not the cardboard kind. We’re talking metal boxes. Yes, shipping containers! Why else would I be writing about it here. You see, Illy, Starbucks, la boîte cafe, and a few others have all experimented with concept stores made from the adorable metal box. The press has written a few stories of them over the last few years, in cased you missed them, these are some of my favorites: here, here, and here. Starbucks seems to be expanding their endeavor to look at redefining the drive-thru coffee shack – a uniquely Seattle thing. I say shack, as most of them look like they would fall over. Not these stores. They not only look solidly-anchored to the landscape, they actually have landscaping, rather than a sea of pavement. It’s an object in the landscape. A thing to be experiencedfrom the outside – mostly by car.

Did you know that over 90% of Starbucks customers take their drinks to go? So, why not have a few stores that eliminate the indoor seating and acknowledge that fact? Less is more. On this particular wet Saturday, there were a great deal of cars lined up just before lunch. Personally, I like getting out of the car, and often find the service is faster and enjoy interacting with people directly rather than through a talking menu board. For people like me, they have two standard and one accessible parking space, paired with a walk up window. I wasn’t allowed to take interior pictures, so use your imagination that there were four hard-working baristas in that 160 SF space.

The store seems mysterious, and appears to hold some secrets inside – like what’s going on upstairs? It seems to be an open air sculpture without an interior function. Although I can totally imagine that as an employee break patio. The map on the front is a nice touch, to show you where you are in this part of the city. The upper container has a silhouette of the very recognizable Ballard railroad bridge which I also visited this weekend, just West of the Chittenden Locks.

It’s just so cute. It even comes with matching bike rack and benches. I especially like two things about the mission behind these: the design team decided to use containers that have actually travelled a few trips. They’ve got the scars to prove it. Their reason for choosing this is straightforward: use less virgin materials, and keep the containers out of the waste stream. They say it better than I can, here (click to enlarge):

I like that my camera lens got wet at the end of the shoot. Adds authenticity. I’ll have to return at night, as I suspect that upper box lights up, like the Tukwilla store in the article referenced above.

Tiny House Typologies

imageI’m going to explore the different layouts often found on the many tiny house websites out there and try to explain why none of them suit me. I’ve hand-sketched them from memory as simple diagrams, to protect the identities of each.

First, let’s just get one thing out of the way. I’m a designer, and it’s in my nature to want to create something new. This in no way is to say that the options available out there aren’t valuable.

Knowing something fits with your lifestyle, your values, and appeals to your senses, is what makes a house a home. “Commodity, firmness and delight”, words said by Vitruvius over 2,000 years ago were then, and are still today, the foundations of what makes good design and good architecture. The combination and weighting of these and the aspects of each differ for many people.

Of the varied floor plans of tiny houses on wheels available and examples of built work from the last ten to fifteen years, I think I can organize these into varying typologies. These are in no particular order.

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Type #1
With this plan, you’ve got a good deal of flexibility. I’ve seen these often with a full-width front porch, shown hatched. The living and kitchen are a shared zone, which may be a problem for some who like watching television and relaxing on a couch. What’s gained by this configuration is a whole extra room, as compared with option #3 (arguably the original of the tiny house on wheels layout). This room could be used for a twin bed, a den for that TV watching, or possibly an office.

Like many of these houses, there’s a loft that can comfortably fit a queen-size mattress above the bathroom and smaller bedroom/den. This arrangement of spaces could even allow additional storage above the kitchen or front porch.

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Type #2
Version two has large space in the middle, flanked on each end by the bathroom and kitchen. This arrangement provides the largest possible open space, while at the same time dictates that the largest windows are on the sides. What I don’t particularly care for in this layout is the necessity to enter directly into the living space. Within the confines of the box, there’s no journey or transition, no sense of discovery. This could be mitigated by a temporary porch, although when entering in the middle of such a large space, you can see everything the home has to offer. This also means there’s no room for separate contemplation, other than the bathroom.

If views are important, the orientation of the home must be considered carefully, ensuring there is enough maneuvering space to position the home on the site. This may not be possible when using the home as a proper RV in a park. In the RV park configuration, you would be looking only at your neighbors.

A loft is possible while sacrificing part of the potential for a high-ceiling living space. I’ve noticed a few that have accomplished this in clever ways, some even with the loft on sliding rails over the bathroom – which when pulled back, make for showering in a light-filled tall space very pleasant. Just make sure if someone is in the bed, they don’t mind going on a little magic carpet ride.

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Type #3
Business in the Front, Party in the Back – or perhaps a better name would be the plain studio apartment model. In this plan, regardless of where the entrance is, the kitchen, bath and storage are aligned along a common corridor in a galley style configuration. This is very efficient, and allows a loft above, while leaving the majority of the main level for a large open area.

I would say this is very appealing, as the open area can serve as a multi-purpose space for living, sleeping, eating and work. If I were to expect living alone, this fit the bill. However, this model requires a lot of negotiation with a partner or spouse. Like type 2, this layout makes it a challenge for two adults to be doing separate activities.

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Type#4
This type is often associated with a deck over wheels configuration, similar to what I’m planning.  The entrance is on the long side, again directly bringing you into the living room, flanked by the kitchen and bath, and the bedroom. This is another very efficient layout, as it eliminates any corridors. To save even more space, one model I’ve seen with this configuration introduces the wet bath concept and a shared sink with the kitchen.

For my tastes, entering into the living room in a way that your seating area looks back at the front door feels off. It’s probably bad feng shui, if you’re into that – which I consider to contain wise principles, even without necessarily understanding the spiritual thought behind them.

Breaking from the pack
What I’d very much like to do, and have explored several versions of, is to break free of the boundaries of the box. Unfolding panels, pop-outs and pop-ups could be some of the strategies for making the spaces better suited programmatically to my needs. For instance, a room could expand as needed for a given activity such as dining, versus a desk for a laptop. Rooms could combine for larger gatherings, or furniture could transform from a banquette or couch to become a guest bed. Many of these ideas have been used in the RV and boat design for decades.

Someone once said that there are no new ideas. Someone’s already thought of everything. While that often seems true, and there’s plenty to be learned from studying other’s work, I don’t think we’ve even begun to examine this typology in any real depth. I want to discover and implement the ideas that are most exhilarating and tickle my funny bone. There’s going to be many other ways of synthesizing these ideas into a new way of thinking about the house and tiny living.

Every time I bring up this project of mine in front of a group, there’s always a large number of people that have never heard of the tiny house movement. We have a long way to go. I want to engage as many people as possible, to help generate more ideas. Perhaps it might make sense to create a design competition. That could help raise awareness within the design community, and be a way to get to my goal of a living laboratory with this project when finally built. I’m really looking forward to that day.

{image top, Etruscan Temple types, from around the 1st century, B.C. by Francis Brenders at www.vitruvius.be | other images drawn (crudely) by sdb.}

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.

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