Archive for August, 2015

Tiny House Jamboree- Colorado Springs: Part 2

I think kits are half-way between buy and build.

I think kits are half-way between buy and build.

One of the speakers gave a talk that I gathered is a new consideration for the movement. Laura Higgins discussed the choice to buy or to build. The decision is ultimately answered by designing your life around what matters. Is it more important to learn the diverse skills necessary to build a house- and make no mistake, it is a house- or is it more important to get into the house quickly? Is this temporary housing or a permanent move? If you’re building, do you have access to skills (yours or in your community), time (months), space for building, and materials (new or reclaimed). If you are buying, do you have the cash in the bank or financing? Having it built or buying a ready-built one will cost more than building it yourself, but the cost is usually known up front, unlike any building project, ever. In either case, have you walked through enough plans to be sure this will work for you? She even suggested taping out the plan on the floor so you can “live” in it to give it a dry run before building or buying. In the end, though, be open about your journey. People want to help and hearing about your journey may help them in return. Also, be confident in your decision. It is, after all, yours to make.

I'm not sure why there are complaints about these houses. It's adorable!

I’m not sure why there are complaints about these houses. It’s adorable!

Whether you build or buy, you will need to think about how you plan to use it and the codes and zoning that are associated with those uses. Because zoning trumps everything, that’s where you want to start. This is city and/or county down to HOA rules. They may include things like whether or not RVs are legal, minimum square-footage, and shape/aesthetic requirements. Once you’ve figured out those rules, then you can get into the building codes. The original tiny homes were what Darin Zaruba and Andrew Morrison described as “piece of shed on a trailer.” In other words, not to any particular code. The first code they discussed is the RVIA code, or the code for RVs. Tumbleweed and Sprout builders, among others, build theirs so they are registered as RVs. This means they are built to a national standard. Unfortunately, if your zoning doesn’t allow RVs, it won’t allow these tiny homes. The next step up is HUD code, or mobile homes. Unfortunately, it’s the factory that is certified. If you’re building the house yourself, this certification is not an option. The next step up is the IRC, or International Residential Code. They won’t certify a building on wheels, but why is your tiny house on wheels, anyway? Because you genuinely want to be mobile, or because you didn’t know there were other options? It is possible to build a tiny home to their code as long as you meet the minimum size and room number requirements.

Several of the lofts even came with models to show how spacious they are.

Several of the lofts even came with models to show how spacious they are.

There were some additional interesting tidbits from that talk. After 15 years of work, there is now an IRC National Strawbale Code. Change does happen if enough people want it badly enough. Legal egresses are not, in fact, about allowing you to get out if your home is on fire. The minimums are designed so that when you are unconscious from smoke inhalation, an average-sized firefighter can come in the building and save you. Given the size of tiny homes, and the fact that the bedroom is just a loft (IRC does require a separate bedroom) a second egress isn’t technically a requirement, but it might be a good idea to consider how you can skedaddle if anything goes wrong, because the house won’t last long enough for firefighters to get there. Apparently there is such a thing as the fastest tiny house- raced on the Bonneville Salt Flats. Could someone find me that video? I was not able to.

This arrived as a trailer and a kit on Friday. By the middle of Sunday . . .

This arrived as a trailer and a kit on Friday. By the middle of Sunday . . .

If you are interested in building your tiny house on wheels, Damon Deschampes talked to us about what to look for in a trailer. The original tiny homes were frequently built on utility trailers for lack of a better option. They are finding that as the originals age, utility trailers were less than the best choice. They are built for short-term hauling, not permanent, heavy weights. The laws concerning trailers change from state to state and they are currently fluctuating even within states. However, their research indicates that if you keep the height under 13’6″ and the width, including eves, under 102″, it should be road legal without additional permits. It is possible to get permits to move it if you build it taller or wider, but each state requires their own for each trip, so it’s inconvenient to build it bigger if you’re planning on keeping it mobile. You also want to take into account how you attach the house to the foundation because every time you move it, you are subjecting it to earthquake-like movements of 5-6 on the Richter scale and hurricane force winds. One last thought is to check the credentials of the experts you rely on. Make sure they aren’t snake-oil salesmen.

If we're going for productive land use, this one even has a chicken coop!

If we’re going for productive land use, this one even has a chicken coop!

Given all the interest in tiny homes and alternative living options, if you have land, there are people who are looking for places to park. Jan Burton and Sam Austin talked to us about ADUs, accessory dwelling units. They are actually legal in much of Colorado Springs, but check your HOAs and, if you live elsewhere, google ADU and your town. What they’ve found is that it’s great for increasing the population density without increasing the use of cars the way apartment buildings do. It gives rental income, often long-term, and allows homeowners to create living units, not developers. It’s possible to create an ADU either as an internal divide of a current house or as a detached unit. I suspect the internal divide would be easier to get past picky neighbors and HOAs, since the requirements on detached units tend to be stringent.

Once again, I’ve run out of room. My conclusion and favorite speaker will have to wait for Part 3.

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Tiny House Jamboree- Colorado Springs: Part 1

The houses were tiny. The crowd was not.

The houses were tiny. The crowd was not.

I was lucky enough to hear about the Tiny House Jamboree just in time to sign up to go. I didn’t get to make it the first day, a Friday, but I did make it for the other two. Me and about 17,000 other people. Apparently the turnout was . . . unexpected. But even with the long lines for food and tiny house tours, the people were cheerful and chatty. Like any group who finally finds others that share their non-mainstream interests. It happened to be in my back yard, but there were people who came from around the country and around the world to join in the festivities.

The houses came in all shapes and sizes.

The houses came in all shapes and sizes.

I listened to most of the speakers, and the one thing that struck me about all of them is that this movement may be going mainstream, but its arms are still open wide for anyone who wants to learn and participate. And it also embraces many, many different ways of expressing “tiny living.” Once upon a time, you had to build, and probably even design, your own house. Now, you can buy one pre-made. You still count as part of the community. One speaker even defined a “tiny house” as any house in which every square foot is used well. If you are fully utilizing every space in a 5,000 square foot house he might question your definition of “utilize,” but he believes that you count, too. It is not about shoe-horning yourself into the tiniest space you can manage, but about defining and using only the space you actually need.

I kind of fell in love with the Gypsy Wagon Stages they brought in.

I kind of fell in love with the Gypsy Wagon Stages they brought in.

In fact, it felt very much as if the tiny houses themselves were really secondary to what the actual movement was about. The movement itself seems to be about redefining each person and their place in the world so that instead of living the way society says they “should” live, they have the option to live as they, themselves, believe they should. Tiny homes tend to have tinier bills attached, and if you’re only living in 200 or even 500 square feet of space, you really have to think about the “stuff” that you spend your money on. If you’re freed up from the heating and cooling bills from a McMansion and you simply don’t have room to put yet another enormous TV, what do you do with your money? All of a sudden, you have options.

They call it a yurt, but, given the space on the inside, it might have been a TARDIS.

They call it a yurt, but, given the space on the inside, it might have been a TARDIS.

One of the speakers was Vina Lustado, an architect who was discussing design with us. She believes that beyond aesthetics, and function, design can redefine your lifestyle, environment, and community. In short, design is a process in which to solve a problem. She was brought to the tiny movement because, as an architect, she found herself constantly working for big projects for big companies with big budgets. It was all about big mortgages and big cars. Big, big, and more big. But all that big comes with big bills that tie you down. That didn’t sit well with her. So she designed herself a home and a life that didn’t require the big mortgages and big bills, which then let her branch off to start helping others with their tiny dreams.

Some people need gardens . . .

Some people need gardens . . .

Going against the grain can be scary, though. Andrew Morrison discussed this fear- and the fear that keeps us from doing a lot of the things that would make us better people and the world a better place. His definition of a tiny house is “human-sized.” The right size is defined by what is appropriate to you, personally. The hard part of this is that you can’t ask someone else what the “right size” is. You have to ask yourself, and be honest, about who you are and what your needs are. What are the things that bring you joy that you don’t do? Why not? Now, one layer deeper, really why not? According to Jack Hanfield, everything you want is on the other side of fear. Andrew pointed out that fear is also a message. What is it really telling you? You’re afraid you won’t be able to pay the mortgage. Then invert it- what you really desire is financial stability. He likes to invert things to give them a positive slant. Eliminating debt is less satisfying than building wealth, because you’re running from, not running toward. What is standing between you and your passions? How do you resolve or remove that block? In the end, it’s not about succeeding, it’s about not giving up.

I have lived in apartments that are not only smaller, but way less inviting, than the SimBLISSity House.

I have lived in apartments that are not only smaller, but way less inviting, than the SimBLISSity House.

Byron Fears had a slightly different take on how to define your space. As a designer and builder, he spends half his time trying to talk clients into bigger spaces. It’s not because he’ll make more money, but because most people don’t take into account exactly how much room they need for the stuff they love. He lives, and builds, up in Boulder. We like our outdoor play in Colorado, and that requires gear. Multiple coats, multiple pairs of boots, skis, backpacks, bikes. In fact, on a lot of his houses, he builds on a bicycle garage for just that reason. But there are also other things that make the house a joy. Do you like to cook? Make sure you have a real kitchen, not a hotplate and a dime-sized sink. Also consider your food shopping habits. Will that tiny fridge really work if you don’t shop daily? Take into account not just who you are now, but also who you want to be. Do you see a spouse, kids, dogs, grandkids in the future? Should you build in stairs, not a ladder, because your knee isn’t going to handle a ladder for too many more years? While the couch makes for an excellent storage space, it, and the loft, should also take into account comfort and being inviting to others. On the other hand, are there silly redundancies like a bathroom sink AND a kitchen sink? Do you really need both- and the plumbing for both? In short- are you using your space for living, or for silly crap?

Having a shed is just useful when you've got hobbies.

Having a shed is just useful when you’ve got hobbies.

I have a lot more thoughts, and pictures, so I believe there will be another post with more speakers.

6 Simple Steps to Build and Maintain Poor Soil

This post was inspired by someone who hired me to weed a side garden for her. Unfortunately, I believe her land-care tactics are more normal than not.

Step 1– Purchase land that used to be forest, and was never truly turned into grassland.

Forests aren’t good at building soil. When you really get down to it, what builds soil is herbivores eating plants and pooping them back out. There just aren’t as many large animals eating and pooping in a forest as there are on a well-managed grassland. By well-managed, I mean one that is exactly as nature intended, predators and all, or one that humans are managing exactly as nature intended. Over-grazing, under-grazing, and turning it into potato and bean fields are all not in the best interest of a soil builder. If you start with the thin soil you often find in forests and then don’t manage it well, it will not improve with any speed, if at all.

Step 2– Manage the grazers that are on the property such that the favorite grasses never have a rest period to regrow between grazings.

Grass grows the fastest when it is between 3 and 6 inches high. Below 3 inches, there simply isn’t enough leaf space for photosynthesis to support rapid growth. Over 6 inches, and you risk it going to seed. Once an annual, like many grasses, goes to seed, it quits growing. Why? Because the mission has been accomplished. If you never remove the grazers, particularly in the winter and spring when the grass is the most fragile, then the favorite types of grass never reach that magic 3″ height. Everything they don’t like to eat, though? That grows just fine, crowding out the favorites for sunlight and water access.

Step 3– Manage the manure such that it is not able to be utilized by the decomposers that should be living in the land.

There are two ways to do this. One is to leave the manure in the pasture to rot where it is. Given how dry this area is and the fact that we’re working with poor soil, not the best idea. For that to work on a small acerage (probably anything less than 20 acres with proper pasture rotation, around here) there would have to be some pretty awesome decomposers already in the soil. Poor soil simply doesn’t have enough, yet. The second option is to create a manure pile of the size and shape that will encourage composting and then spreading that organic material in doses that the decomposers can handle. This means a tight, shapely manure pile, not a manure sprawl, and you’re probably going to want to water and turn it upon occasion to make sure all of it decomposes.

Step 4– Mis-manage the weeds.

I had to grab a bigger bucket because I’d miscalculated the volume of the weeds I was pulling. The homeowner told me to just throw them in the trashcan. What I said was, “Absolutely not! Then it will go and not decompose in a landfill.” What I should have said was, “Why are you interested in removing organic material from soil that you have said is poor?” Unless the weeds are diseased or have gone to seed, weeds belong in the compost pile. The other major mis-management is to allow the weeds to out-compete the grass. If the weeds are not cut back regularly to let the grass have sun and water, then the grass has no chance to out-compete the weeds. Grass likes to be cut/grazed and weeds do not. Knowing that can change pasture from weeds to grass without chemicals. Just good timing.

Step 5– Use poison.

A friend was telling me about this great weed-killer that she’d started using. All organic, so it was totally safe, right? The ingredients were soap, vinegar, and salt. Ok, so it’s less likely to make your dog sick than, say, Roundup, but there are two points to make here. One- poison is poison. You may or may not outright kill the decomposers in the soil around the unwanted plant or the ones that digest it, but there’s a good chance you’ll weaken them. You’re also leaving less-than-healthy soil for the next thing you want to grow there. Two- you salt the ground of your foes because you don’t want them to grow food to be able to fight back. In a place that doesn’t have the kind of rainfall necessary to wash away salts, why would you salt your own ground? That doesn’t make sense.

Step 6– Complain and warn others that the soil is just lousy.

If you want to make something better, assume there is a way. You just have to look for it. There are challenges that are unique to this area when it comes to building a good, strong soil, but there is no reason to assume it can’t be done. Do some research, ask some questions, and think critically about the information that’s out there. Then allow yourself the time it takes to build it right.

There you go- six easy steps to building and maintaining poor soil. How many are you following?