Custom plans, drafting + Design

Jamie's Musings

Shiplap Siding for a Small House!

Ithaca House, Jamie's MusingsJamieComment
1x5 cedar shiplap siding with rainscreen.

1x5 cedar shiplap siding with rainscreen.

The siding is a simple 5 inch facing cedar shiplap that we chose for its modern, natural, somewhat rugged appearance and straightforward application. So far it’s been really nice to work with. We’ve managed to nearly complete the front and back sides and the east and west sides are moved all the way up to the upper window lines. This weekend we have, at last, a length of sunny skies in the forecast and will finish our work then.

Making progress.

This is what we're aiming for...

This is what we're aiming for...

Once the siding is all the way to the top, we can complete the metal roofing trim and the outside will be essentially completed. We have used stainless steel nails for the siding to prevent nail bleeding. In terms of finish stains, many of the coatings for cedar available encourage a uniform yellow, brown or reddish look that doesn’t really capture the gorgeous variations that fresh new cedar has (right now the colors are like Southwestern mesas…lots of red and rich golden yellow…spectacular! Instead of trying a stain, we’re going to encourage the silver aging of the wood by using a natural product called Eco Wood, manufactured right on Salt Spring Island to the west of us. We briefly considered vinegar and steel wool, which is said to achieve a similar effect, but weren't confident we'd enjoy all the rubbing required to rub down an entire house! We’re pretty excited to try it out and will do a more thorough report on that when the time comes. 

Nearly done.

Our small house building project update and a tribute to our spunky jobsite cat!

Ithaca House, Jamie's MusingsJamieComment
Penny at work on the  Beekeeper's Bungalow  (Point Roberts, 2012)

Penny at work on the Beekeeper's Bungalow (Point Roberts, 2012)

Follow this project on INSTAGRAM

Saying goodbye to our job site cat.

Penny loved to climb ladders, both in our tiny house and on building projects. Watch her climb to her sleeping loft!

It’s been a very long time since an update and it’s time to catch up. August had a lot in store for us, both bitter and sweet, with the sudden loss of our amazing job site cat and all around beloved friend Penny comprising the bitter and the sweet covered by a great reunion with friends from far away and just getting caught up in the wonderful social season that is summer. In the midst of these other happenings, much work was accomplished on the house, too. We had many deliveries of material - windows, doors, siding, roofing, pergola material and insulation.  The metal roofing is also black but can’t really be seen from anywhere as the roof pitch is quite low. We installed the 32 foot lengths in a single day, getting some navigational, lifting and moral support from a great neighbor and friend, Robin Woods. We have yet to install the roofing trim pieces (have to wait to get the siding fully hung), but it is flashed and certainly doing its work shedding the rain that’s begun quite early this year!

Penny doing an inspection in 2012.

Penny doing an inspection in 2012.

Marvin Integrity Wood-Ultrex Windows & Doors

Once the roof was on, we moved on to the window and door installation. This went smoothly, for the most part, with the windows being a breeze and the doors being a bit more fussy but working out beautifully in the end. We went again with Marvin’s Integrity line and really like the large clear surfaces of glass and the smart looking black exteriors, especially now that the siding is going in and they can show to their advantage. 

Cedar Pergola (in progress)

Marvin Integrity black windows

The pergola material (rough cut 6 x 6 cedar) arrived along with the cedar shiplap siding and we were able to build up the simple structure quite easily, even lifting the 12 foot 6 x 6 material into place with no issues. The harder part was taking the measurements and cutting the posts down (in place) to their proper height, but even this wasn’t too great a challenge. We plan to in-fill between the posts to provide a light shading screen though we probably won't get to finish it until the rains taper off next spring. Until then it'll likely remain a bit messy!

(And, hey...we also starting siding!).

Let's get the roof (sort of) put on before the rains get us!

Ithaca House, Jamie's MusingsShawn A. DehnerComment
Me with my GIANT daikon radish and a bunch of kale - it already feels like home!

Me with my GIANT daikon radish and a bunch of kale - it already feels like home!

Monday: Braced Wall Panels

This was an interesting week - we spent Monday preparing for our shear wall and roof framing inspection - it was a day of many nails…it seemed as though there was always one more spot to put in some nails.

A Portal Frame with Hold Downs (PFH) was required for our front wall to resist lateral movement during a seismic event. Overhead is a 20' 4x12 header!

A Portal Frame with Hold Downs (PFH) was required for our front wall to resist lateral movement during a seismic event. Overhead is a 20' 4x12 header!

Tuesday: Our Rainy Shear Wall Inspection Day

We had torrential rains on Tuesday morning and spent the earlier hours sweeping out the rain that had come in through windows and that found its way in through the long screws the hold down the insulation on the roof. Then we had our inspection, which was a pass and very smooth.

Our nailing schedule was 3-in on center around the Portal Frame!

Our nailing schedule was 3-in on center around the Portal Frame!

Wednesday: Porch Roof

Wednesday the house had dried out (we have done enough building now that I no longer have a massive panic attack every time our plywood gets rained on…though I do wonder at times if the weather gods go searching through the atmosphere looking for houses without their papering on yet). We raised the beam for the porch into place and got the rafters installed and then put the plywood and roofing felt on it. Balances out the house nicely and it’s going to be nice to have a wide covered stoop to come home to. 

Our porch called for simple framing with a modest slope. It's awaiting some sheathing here.

Our porch called for simple framing with a modest slope. It's awaiting some sheathing here.

Thursday: Installing the Front Wall Soffit

Thursday building the soffit across the front of the house. We’ve planned it to allow the front rooms of the house to catch as much sun as possible, lend an aesthetic, and also act as a chase to house outdoor speakers and lighting.

Our front facing soffit is deep for lighting and audio speakers (music for gardening). We used leftover 2x4 material for the framing. We've virtually no wood waste on the project.

Our front facing soffit is deep for lighting and audio speakers (music for gardening). We used leftover 2x4 material for the framing. We've virtually no wood waste on the project.

Friday: Making the Walls Weather-Resistant with Jumbo-Tex Paper

Then we moved on to papering the house. We have all but the last layer up front on and we’ll do that in the morning, along with nailing up some last plywood that needs to be added around the porch to catch siding properly. As rain is becoming more and more a part of our forecast (weird summer!) we opted to tack on some large sheets of plastic over the roof to keep things dry. Our roofing is on order and arrives on the 17th, the windows will arrive the following week.

We almost finished the papering but ran out of staples!

We almost finished the papering but ran out of staples!

Preparing for the next stage: 

  • We also spent some time this week ironing out interior details.
  • We are ready to place our siding order and sourced the 6 x 6 cedar columns that will make up the pergola across the front of the house.
  • We also designed our kitchen and made the purchases of the counters and cabinetry while it was on sale.
  • And lastly, we were able to locate where to put our inside electrical panel - had a variance given by the power company that allows for a good placement in the house. So the week went…a combination of small and large things done. Still feeling like a smooth and attainable build...

Ithaca House: Beams, Rafters & Roof Sheathing!

Ithaca House, Jamie's MusingsJamie1 Comment

The summer weather is here and we are making great progress on our house!

Last Sunday we built the interior load bearing wall - a stud wall area and two built up posts where a more open entrance area will be. We built the overhead beam in place from 2 x 8 material as the location where our rafters would meet and be attached.

This week we installed our 2 x 12 rafters front and back. They were 18 foot lengths and we overhung them 2 feet in the front for an eave that will eventually be boxed in to house speakers and lighting, and extended for aesthetic by attaching them via pergola to some posts yet to be installed up front.

We also had our roof sheathing (⅝” CDX) delivered along with the foam insulation that we will use for exterior insulation.

The plywood we installed today - it went quite smoothly and just about concludes any heavy lifting required for this job. It’s been a smooth process, quite a joy to work on!  The simplicity of the design is delighting us at every turn!

This week we’ll continue work on the roof. We’ll nail the plywood down, paper it, and then prepare the framing around the outside for the exterior insulation. Then we’ll install all the foam boards. We hope to perhaps install the posts for the side porch and get that underway as well. We’re also placing our metal roofing order this week. Looking forward to having a roof on before summer’s end!

Island House: Ceiling the Deal

Island House, Jamie's MusingsJamie1 Comment

It’s been too long between progress reports. We’ve made gratifying progress every day and have finally gotten our camera battery charger replaced so we have photos to share with you.

small island house living room with pine ceiling

Here’s what we’ve worked on…

We finished all the casings around the windows and doors and got them primed, caulked and painted. Shawn also built up the pass through between the dining room and living room in a way that reflects the sturdy pergola 8 x 8’s outside. We like seeing the outdoor posts while looking at the indoor ones, a reflection where one is wearing fancy clothes and the other is au natural - our own take on town mouse and country mouse.

We cased all the transitions between rooms (those without doors) and got those primed, caulked and painted. We received four of our seven doors on order (the others are dimensionally unusual and are still a couple of weeks from delivery) and got those doors hung, cased, primed, caulked and painted (are you seeing a pattern here?). Then doorknobs arrived via mail and now we have truly opening and closing doors.

The Pacific Pine tongue and groove that we are using for ceiling was delivered.

Yesterday we had our first sunny day in what seems a century but has really “only” been 5 or 6 weeks (a definite pattern there, more’s the pity) and took the opportunity to throw open the doors and let in the fresh air while we cut and fit the living room ceiling. We are insulating for sound, which turned out to be quite easy. We’ve also installed and finished the surfaces on the majority of the moulding throughout the house. We seem to be at the end of seeing raw drywall edges peeking out at us, a nice thing indeed!

And that’s about all for now.

Tonight we’re going to bring in the rest of the Pacific Pine to acclimate and getting ready for a weekend visit to friends on the mainland. Next week we’ll be back at work installing the rest of the ceilings and working toward finishing all the trim work. It’s nearly time for Shawn to transition into cabinetry work. With the warming weather it's also time to think about ordering the remaining cedar siding and getting ready for exterior finishing. Seems that we’re on track for a late May completion to the house, which is what we hoped to accomplish. Time will tell!

Are we seeing a mainstreaming of smaller homes?

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Shawn and I built a house in Maine together that was so much bigger than we expected and needed that it was ultimately one of the reasons we ended up selling it. While it was on the market, a frequent comment we heard was that it was "too small" which completely amazed us, particularly given that at the time, fuel prices were very high and it seemed an incredibly big house to us. 

Since having that experience, we always consider size in our drafting, particularly since we have moved around and resale is something we now always take into consideration when building. We want to build small homes but also keep in mind that homes are a big investment/money sink for all of us. If you need or want to sell the home, it is nice to think that you could get your investment back out of it. 

Our first house building project was a trial by fire experience. Belfast, ME (Fine Homebuilding, 2009)

Our first house building project was a trial by fire experience. Belfast, ME (Fine Homebuilding, 2009)

Has concern about resale value ever prevented you from building or buying a small house? 

In talking with realtors over the last decade, we've noticed that rather than hearing about how big a house needs to be to be attractive to buyers, we're hearing realtors actually blow off the idea of a house being less marketable due to a smaller size - citing that people's tastes and needs are changing. Retirees don't need as much space and seem to be showing themselves more averse to taking on huge houses. Young couples, too, can fit this category. The size of families has grown smaller so that small houses can easily accommodate a family with children. Many people don't have children. This is a real sea change. Perhaps this trend holds more true in crowded urban areas where space is at a premium or in retirement areas where many buyers are not necessarily looking to take on a humongous house responsibility. But then again, we might also be seeing long term trends transition to smaller houses being seen as highly attractive for their own merits, rather than being seen as "too small" or "not big enough."  

Right Sizing Your Home

Jamie's MusingsJamie
BIG, Small, tiny...what's a good house size? 

BIG, Small, tiny...what's a good house size? 

Some time ago a woman making a comment on our site mentioned “right sizing” her life. I thought that was an apt phrase. We always hear about down sizing and super sizing (and even super down sizing!) but we don’t necessarily hear much about right sizing, which implies a great deal of consideration. It’s easy to go big…what can’t be fit into 3500 square feet?  It’s even easy to go tiny, in many ways. You just put everything into storage or "get rid of things". But what if you fall somewhere in between and want to make a conscientious choice that meets your current and foreseeable needs?

People considering building or buying a home are all totally different in terms of needs and really have to consider these issues carefully. It’s not an easy task, actually. It can be problematic to build or buy a tiny or small home and then find you actually do need more space. It can be equally problematic to find that you thought you needed more than you did and are now dealing with all that extra space. Personally, I’ve experienced both sides of this coin. Both have associated problems. 

So as a piece of advice to people planning to build at some point or are currently in process, I offer the following thoughts on design. Consider your needs carefully and thoughtfully and honestly. Try not to make your decisions based on what you think is cute, or works for other people (and therefore “should” work for you) or is somehow the “only” right thing to do. Sometimes all of these things coincide, but definitely consider your needs so that you can make a choice that will ensure a home that works for you for a long time to come.

  • Do you have a big family? Small?
  • Are you planning to have kids? 
  • Do you live alone?
  • Is your family still subject to expansion or are members just about to leave the nest?  
  • Do you do a lot at home in terms of business, hobbies, cooking, entertaining or do you prefer to be out and about, traveling often or eating out regularly?  
  • Do you live in a climate that has extremes that might make being indoors necessary for a good chunk of the year?  
  • Do you like cozy spaces or do they disconcert you?  
  • When you look around your current space, what problems do you see?  
  • Are the problems you seek to avoid replicating layout issues or do you actually have too much or too little space?  
  • How much can you afford and how much do you want to pay for in dollars, time, expenses, etc?  

I think there are probably a lot of other issues in there as well, but having a good solid question and answer session can be illuminating and might help to guide your design process so that you can come up with a small home that is the right size for your specific needs. Putting in the thought in advance can save you a bundle of time, energy and money down the line. Believe it or not, we have heard from people who have houses both too big and too small. Seeking a balance is a worthy challenge for prospective home builders as it makes it far more likely that your project will be rewarding to yourself and others for many, many decades to come.


The Myth of No Maintenenance

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

 Along our daily walk, Shawn and I pass an old tow behind camper...perhaps it’s an old Boler or something akin. It’s a wreck. The side is falling out and the roof is rumpled and the poor thing has just been abandoned in a field where plenty of rain and UV aren’t contributing kindly to its dereliction.  I don’t know what it is about this sad little guy that caught my attention. I guess it’s partly that, having lived in a small and technically portable space for the last couple of years, I look at campers, rv’s and even sheds and can’t help but start to imagine how they might be transformed into viable living spaces for the short or long term. Certainly I have a sorrow of seeing perfectly good things abandoned to early decay. Shawn and I once entertained the idea of camping all over the country in a little Boler, with flats of soil strapped to the top so we could stay a while here and there and grow some lettuce in the process (it’s tough to balance a wandering spirit with one that thrives in a garden and thus needs a home plot somewhere!). So even this poor old decaying thing has a friendly look to it and deserves my pity, though it’s certainly in need of more repair than I (and probably anyone) can give it.

Even the tiniest of structures need maintenance

Even the tiniest of structures need maintenance

We recently had a conversation with a friend in town who runs a busy contracting service. Many of his clients are looking for low or “no” maintenance solutions to their homes. I’ll admit right away that I tend to be very leery of low and especially “no” maintenance products. So is our contractor friend, frankly. The fact is, maintenance is required. Most low and no maintenance products are lower grade and you will end up paying one way or another in the long (or short) run, especially if you enter a relationship with them expecting to do no work to keep up with their integrity (or lack thereof).  We all have active lives, but putting work into a thing has an intrinsic value, to my mind, that has been aggressively downplayed by a modern world that wants things done immediately and “cheaply.” Possibly this is just aberrant thinking on our part, and we should work to be more rational in our approach to things relating to our structures and our relationships with them.

That said, I can understand the need for materials that last and don’t require a ton of expensive labor to maintain. These products do exist, and for a reason. This is also why small homes seem logical, sustainable and just more fun to me. When we built in Maine, the home was larger than we expected for various reasons. This was actually a difficult situation to remedy because we had to use a product (vinyl siding) that we really didn’t want to use, for reasons both environmental and aesthetic. This was a case where I could clearly understand the value of low maintenance, though. This particular home partly turned out larger than expected because it had a daylight basement, adding height. It was also fully two stories and had an attic space that was habitable. You can imagine that this was a pretty tall home. We were unable to do the siding work ourselves because of this. That meant having to hire out the labor, which was expensive and well worth the money, since it was skilled work that we weren’t able to perform ourselves. However, the cost savings had to come somewhere, and vinyl was significantly less expensive than the base price of wood, which would have required further labor dollars to be added in terms of painting crews after installation.  In terms of our long term considerations, too, a material that didn’t need to be repainted, sanded, and otherwise maintained by persons other than ourselves was a requirement we had to observe from a financial standpoint. It was also a lesson that we learned a great deal from. We want all of our homes to be ones that we can finish as we desire and we want our homes to be ones that we can, so long as we are physically able, do most of the maintenance on ourselves so that our finances can remain as healthy as our bodies. Thus, another beauty of the small house. I mention this experience of having to observe the “low maintenance issue” though because I want to let the reader know that I understand that it’s needed and necessary to consider. Even on a small home, not everyone has the time, inclination, interest or skill set to do all the labor required. The building trade exists for good reason and there is a lot of valuable skill, intelligence and experience out there for us to be able to draw on by supporting that economy. I’m a believer in that. However, the ethos of small also helps in this scenario. At least where I live, builders, carpenters and most of the other trades relating to construction command high wages. Keeping things small can be pretty important when you consider how common it is for someone you are paying to be earning $25 to $50 an hour.

Most of all, though, I look at the natural way that things fall apart and realize that every time we build something, we are working against the inimitable strength of impermanence. As soon as you set a foundation, you begin to think about what can damage your work. Frost, termites, ants, hydrostatic pressure, mold...the list goes on and on. It only expands with every piece of timber that gets nailed so painstakingly into place. Once you are buttoned up, the rain might not fall in through the ceiling (well it better not!), but your siding, roof, windows and everything else exposed is helpless to avoid the daily beating of the elemental world. Paint, and lots of it, sealing and caulking, maintenance. It becomes a requirement. It’s a joy and a privilege, as well, but it’s definitely work and all work has associated costs, whether you hire it out or do it yourself.  A small home or even a little camper can rapidly become rubbish if not maintained, so for me, keeping things small is some guarantee that I will have the ability to keep up with things. I want to and frankly am one of those people that takes great joy from working hard. I even love to weed. And yet, I know that if something is too big, it can and perhaps unavoidably will at some point, become too much for Shawn and I to do on our own. So to indulge my preferences as well as hedge my bets, I will be delighting in a small home that won’t require excessive labor to maintain and also won’t require excessive amounts of “low” and “no” maintenance materials to trick me into thinking the labor won’t be required, somehow. And I know that when we sell this home, it will be easy for the next family to take care of as well, because small is a “low maintenance” that I don’t have trouble believing in. By keeping size in mind and doing the maintenance on the way (and barring all mega disasters, of course) this house will take a long time to break down and wear away. No one during my tenure here and hopefully for many long decades to come will pass it on their daily walk and marvel at the decrepitude of it. The good care we give it will also make it appealing to others, when the time comes, who also love and take care of things. What a relief that feels to me.

Thoughts on (Re)modeling the Future

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

We had an interesting comment recently from someone who suggested we (and this was a collective we rather than a “we” restricted to myself and Shawn) would do better work by remodeling existing homes than by building new ones, given that there’s such a glut of homes on the market, especially in North America. I say that the answer is... not necessarily.

A neighborhood of remodeled bungalows in Atlanta, Georgia.

A neighborhood of remodeled bungalows in Atlanta, Georgia.

Here’s why.

I’ll say flat out that I’m a big fan of remodeling homes. Shawn and I got our start and basic skill set by remodeling. We couldn’t have owned our first home if it hadn’t been in need of a lot of work, because we simply couldn’t have afforded an expensive newer or older house that was in tip top shape. Plus, we couldn’t have made a house seem more “like ours” outside of building it from the ground up if it hadn’t been for the major remodeling we did to it. Even though we didn’t build our first truly loved home from scratch, we put our hearts and souls into it and it became imbued with our love and fingerprints...a Velveteen Rabbit sort of thing. We both love remodeling and curiously enough, would still love to remodel another house in our future, though we aren’t certain if it’s in the cards.

But I will also say that if we were to remodel, we would want it to be an older home, and by older, I mean a home built prior to 1949. The materials and building styles commonly used at that time tend to be better, in our opinion, than those typically used in more recent history (there are always exceptions to generalizations, of course). Some of the most recent architecture, especially large box like houses, seems like it would be nearly impossible to remodel to me. Curiously, I think this is because I consider remodeling to be both an outdoor and an indoor job. It seems to me that the majority of what fuels design in more cookie cutter style homes is a focus on the interior of a home to the near complete exclusion on the focus of the outdoor facade of a home (and the neighboring homes including the people living in them). You might indeed have as a result a very comfortable and attractive home from the interior view. But the exterior is sort of lifeless and not very personalized. All of us have seen developments where this sort of thing occurs. I don’t really write this to demonize these developments or put them down, but to note that if we focus exclusively on the interior of our homes, we create a problem in terms of exterior aesthetic and I think also reinforce a negative psychology that tends to be overly “indoor” focused. There’s more to life, especially the social lives we hopefully share with one another, than a life that is spent mostly indoors and in front of a television. I think that a lot of modern design encourages an overly indoor lifestyle that compels us to remain in the tv room rather than outside walking, meeting our neighbors, relaxing in the fresh air and gardening or doing other outdoor things, like watching the birds or seeing kids playing together. There are a host of ramifications to this that I won’t get into here.

I guess I realize too that if we were to remodel again, I would want to remodel an older home as well because the older homes (especially bungalow styles) I see in various cities and small towns (like Seattle, Portland, OR or smaller towns like Bellingham, WA or Salem, OR) seem to have an added bonus to them. They are surrounded by other small homes and seem to have a neighborhood character that is very warming and attractive to me personally. The bygone era that they represent is not merely pleasing to the eye (I love the character of these homes even when they are neglected; they bring out a nurturing sense in me that makes me want to do something to restore them) but also to my psychology. I can imagine being out in the yards of these homes because even on tiny city lots, smaller older homes don’t take up the entire lot , which means there’s space left over to sit, garden, play or daydream in. To me, this is attractive and life sustaining. It can be very difficult to find building lots in established urban areas, whether they are large or small urban centers, so remodeling and restoring these homes is definitely high on my list of laudable acts. There are many times that Shawn and I wonder if perhaps that might be possible for us to do together again someday, and that’s despite the fact that we love to build together.

I wonder if it will be possible to start building homes on a “neighborhood” basis that might replicate more closely the beautiful old neighborhoods that are a part, somewhere, of many cities across the country. Perhaps the future will hold a chance for generations down the line to remodel well built, character rich homes in cities and towns across the country. I’d like to imagine something like that happening. That’s part of the reason that I don’t think it always makes sense to remodel existing homes rather than build new ones. Sometimes, people building new really IS better. The builder can choose a style that they love and that reflects something personal to them. They can choose to use good materials that will stand the test of time. They can build something that will delight people decades and even centuries down the line. Yes, I think even in a world that is increasingly beset by shortages of material it can sometimes be best served by starting from scratch. Some of the building that has taken place over the years has just been a big mistake. I think that a certain level of conservation simply occurs by people taking matters into their own hands and building something that will last. It can be done and really should be done. And I hope that it will be.

There’s one more reason that I think building from scratch can be a better option than remodeling. That has to do with expense, funny enough. Depending on your personal skill set and the area of the country that you live, it may in fact be less expensive to build from scratch. A lot of remodel jobs with great potential may have already been done where you live. Seattle is a great example of this. There are lots of adorable bungalows in this city, and most of them have been purchased and fixed up already. There’s not a whole lot of work left to be done on them and their cost reflects that. Granted, in an urban setting like this, there’s also a lack of available building lots, so bear with me on this. I do realize this. But there are places where you can actually build from scratch for far less money than it would cost to buy a fixer upper. As in most things, individual circumstances will dictate particulars, but this is just food for thought and part of why, for our circumstances, building is often a more sensible option than remodeling.

I do hope and intend, though, that our buildings will stand the test of time and will be homes that many decades from now would be well worth remodeling to someone, should they ever fall into disrepair, which I hope they do not! That, however, is the very finest compliment a builder, designer or someone otherwise involved in building could ever receive. If this sensation remains primary in the minds of people anywhere who are undertaking a building project, I don’t think there’s much cause to feel guilty about starting from scratch.

“Wow, this place is really spacious!”

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Do you think this comment was made by a visitor to the Palace at Versailles or a weekend visitor to the Beekeeper’s Bungalow? Well, let’s just say it could’ve been overheard at either location…

We are really making progress on the house and are starting to anticipate moving in sometime in late spring. Interior walls are built, plumbing is being roughed in as I write, and the stairs are built and are awaiting the finishing details. The insulation is also done and the house is staying toasty warm with just a tiny space heater at this point. We are impressed with this last bit for a couple of reasons: First, when we completed our energy audit for the county while applying for our building permit, it looked as though a single 400W electric heater could do the trick in terms of heating – the entire house that is. While it seemed hard to believe at the time, it is now being borne out. Secondly, we used a new (to us) product, the Knauf EcoBatt, for insulation. We did the entire insulation project on our own, employing caulk and foam for air sealing and this high density insulation to bring our walls, ceiling and subfloor insulation up to and beyond current code requirements (we achieved cavity values of R-21 walls, R-38 floor, R-38 cathedral ceiling). We’re so pleased that the product is working so well. In addition, the Knauf insulation is easy to work with, doesn’t smell bad, is free of toxic binders and dyes, and isn’t even all that itchy!

Knauf Eco Batts (self-installed) in second floor attic bays. Air sealing with Chem Link non toxic caulk and spray foam.

Knauf Eco Batts (self-installed) in second floor attic bays. Air sealing with Chem Link non toxic caulk and spray foam.

Plenty of large spaces are insensibly (and strangely) laid out, feeling cramped, small and inefficient. You can also have large spaces that seem plenty large but don’t actually offer up much in the way of functional space to the inhabitant. This particular design flaw creates a problem for people in that they can come to believe that you need even more square footage to gain function and comfort. Many houses are designed BIG as a way to avoid conflicts with code. However, what people really need (and want) are better layouts and good balance, which can take place in both large and small spaces. Huge vaulted ceilings in a large house tend to be enormous wasted spaces that might make a place seem airy but also inadequate. A small home can suffer, too, I think, if it becomes too much like a low, small den. A little bit of vault can be a great antidote to this sense, along with well placed fixtures and maximized space usage. All of us, I would imagine, have lived in small spaces that seem highly functional, small spaces that seem totally dysfunctional, large spaces that seem to somehow not provide appropriate space, or large spaces that seem cavernous and just lack something despite obviously having plenty of square feet. Balance is key, whether you prefer a large or a small home, or whatever gradient in between.So, all this progress is making the house seem like it’s nearing completion. Of course there’s a lot more to do, but we’re at the point where the rooms are obvious to visitors and a sense of comfort is heightened. People are dropping by with interest and we have noticed something interesting about our visitors: most of them immediately comment, “This is really spacious” or “It doesn’t feel small at all” or “It’s so much bigger than it looks!” We intentionally designed a house that wasn’t extra large or even “large” by current standards. This house, in fact, seems like it could be a little smaller and still be plenty comfortable (for our needs). We’ve noted that other people used to much larger spaces are immediately impressed by how “large” the house feels. This is very interesting, especially to me, in that it makes me consider what it is about spaces that makes a small one seem larger or a large one seem smaller. This isn’t the newest of news, and it’s not a revelation, but it’s mostly, I think, an issue of layout.

A grand staircase at Versailles. Our own grand staircase is slightly more compact.

A grand staircase at Versailles. Our own grand staircase is slightly more compact.

It will be fun to post more pictures as they come and we get ever closer to finishing work.I think Shawn and I have reached the point where we are able to design for ourselves (and others – thank you to our customers and interested followers out there!) small spaces that achieve maximum function by being thoughtfully laid out. Obviously, a modest space is never going to be laid out in a way that causes it to resemble the Palace at Versailles; yet, a small house can definitely, as our visitors attest, be laid out in a way that makes it seem not cramped, small and stingy on space – and even cozy, comfortable and functional with room for all that we need in our lives.

Thanks for coming along!

From Giants to the Fairy Tale Cottages of Carmel (Carmel By the Sea, California)

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Part of what is so appealing psychologically about these places is that houses keep a particular similarity to one another and yet are quite unique, each and every one. That seems to be what we want to find reflected in our human community, too. Closeness and connectedness without the sense that uniqueness and individuality have been lost or controlled.

What is Chosen, Flourishes

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Our neighbors are Canadian and found an article about small/tiny houses in their Sunday paper magazine insert. They brought it right over and prefaced giving it to us by explaining that it was quite amusing to them and that the author had a very sarcastic style of writing. I didn’t think much about it at the time and when they actually brought the article over (it was featured in BC Homes magazine, or something like that in title) I didn’t read it right away. When I finally got around to it, I found that it was quite unlike I expected.

Small and tiny houses are in the news a lot right now. For whatever reason that trends begin (and I think anyone who’s been conscious for the last several years is pretty well aware of what might be fueling this particular consciousness shift) the interest in downsizing, simpler living, small houses, efficient use of space, etc. is definitely big news right now. So I really expected this article would be something addressing that growing trend. I was very surprised to read an extremely sarcastic approach to the small house movement that I’d never even considered before.

Here’s why.

The fellow writing the article was singular in his approach to the small house movement in that he was very irritated and angry about it. He suggested that the way to get into the small house movement was to adopt a series of lifestyle changes. An example. He suggested that to live in a small or tiny house you would need to divorce your spouse (or otherwise dispose of them, he wasn’t specific) and get rid of your kids. Along with this you presumably would need to vacate from your life anything that gives you pleasure or offers happiness to yourself or others. And you won’t be able to entertain friends. The article didn’t make it clear if you could keep the friends you had. Are you grinning yet?  I wasn’t at first, but then I snapped out of my grouchiness and thought about how inconceivable it was to me that someone would approach the trend of downsizing in such a fashion. I felt like I didn’t live on the same planet as this guy…like he wasn’t representing me or anyone I knew that was interested in the small house movement!

I haven’t seen any evidence in our boards or communications via email or telephone or in person chats that lead me to believe that people who choose to downsize to small or tiny spaces are antisocial or feel the need to eliminate people and other animals from their lives due to the size of their home. Shawn and I don’t do big dinner entertaining in our 160 square feet, but we do have people over for tea and frequently (sometimes too frequently, when you’re trying to put a roof on!) have drop in visitors. The size of the house hasn’t caused any problems. We’re still happily married. I’ve heard countless stories from people who have raised their families in tiny homes (well, that’s no surprise since several decades ago every family was raised in “tiny” homes and of course, families used to be bigger!).

I’m here to tell you from my experience (and I probably don’t need to) that the small house movement is about much more than getting rid of everything one values in order to live on the cheap. In fact, I would say that the exact opposite is true. Any comments out there? I have comments open on Facebook and for WordPress members. If you are considering downsizing, what about it is appealing to you, what draws you in??  If you are already living in a tiny or small space, what do you love about it?  I love (most) being able to afford my home and therefore have a lot more freedom to pursue gardening, beekeeping and walking with my husband. I don’t feel like I’ve had to give anything up that isn’t in some way re-creatable (although I do think that our couch is incredibly uncomfortable…) Do you think a special temperament is required to “live small?”  I’m curious to hear…feel free to respond!I won’t go on too much further with this entry as I am sore in the wrist from rafter painting (it’s a good kind of tired though) and because I trust that everyone reading this can pretty much guess how weird an experience it was to read a vitriolic piece on living in small spaces. Usually it’s exactly the opposite. All I will say is that the key to happiness seems to be to follow your heart, as much as you can given your personal circumstances. I haven’t met too many people following this rule that aren’t basically satisfied – which is not to say permanently elated. There are always going to be a smattering of folks out there that view change and new ideas and trends as somehow threatening. There are always going to be people who seem to feel that if some percentage of the population opts to enjoy downsizing and living in a smaller space (of their choosing – could be 100 square feet, could be 1000!) that those people must be (or are about to become) deprived, depraved, ascetic, or otherwise permanently damaged by the experience. Maybe it’s easier to think this way than to just accept that tastes and trends change and that not everyone anywhere is ever going to think or live exactly the same way.

The Many Uses of Tiny & Small Houses (Port Townsend, WA)

Jamie's MusingsJamie3 Comments

To start, we had always intended to build a small home to live in full time. We weren’t sure it would even be in Point Roberts, but we always thought of the “rolling house” as a temporary solution. Who knew (at the time) that it would be so comfortable for us that only county regulations would fully entice us to leave it?  Since Shawn and I have begun construction on The Beekeeper’s Bungalow, a lot of passersby have begun to ask the same question that we considered between us when we decided to build a larger small home, What are you going to do with the cute little orange house?

Anyway, the questions we asked ourselves and the questions being posed to us by curious neighbors are what I’m going to use as the jumping off point for this blog entry:

What can you do with a tiny house if you aren’t living in it full time any longer?

One option, of course, is to sell the tiny house. If you’ve built on a trailer bed, the issue is a very simple one (well, as simple as driving a house down the road ever is…mechanically easy but psychologically a bit nervewracking). However, if you’re thinking ahead about the selling option and you’re building on a “footed” foundation, consider putting the house on skids…small buildings, like sheds, have been moved this way for ages.

What about other options? I thought that I would just share a few of the many that I’ve heard from people in town. I’ll start with our own decision. We are keeping our tiny house and it will become “office central” for THE small HOUSE CATALOG. Shawn’s drafting work will probably benefit from my not bopping around the room doing my thing while he is calculating loads and headspace.  Since it’s hooked up to septic, etc. it’s also going to become an enticement for friends and family to come up and stay awhile. And it looks pretty cute on the lot and frankly would be hard for us to let go. It’s become a nice part of our memory. It’s a great place for guests to stay as it’s fully contained, kids love it and adults do too.

Here are some other creative options: One woman stopped by and said she would make this a kitchen that she could put on her land as an accessory building. She is a chocolatier and needs a commercial space separate from her home kitchen where she can do all of her prep work for sales. A little mobile kitchen on her property would free her up from having to rent and drive to commercial space (to satisfy health department regulations, someone selling commercially cannot prepare foods for sale in their home kitchen) Very convenient!

Another couple came and surprised me when the teenaged daughter and her mother told me that this would be a perfect accessory building for their cottage in town. The cottage is small and with the kids growing up, they wanted a little more space for the teens to be able to do their own thing with the family but also be “on their own.” What surprised me was that the daughter immediately began pointing out what she wouldn’t need…no bathroom necessary, no kitchen necessary…just space to have friends hang out together and sleepover. Parents of teenagers might or might not press more for the bathroom than the kids!

A rental space is another option I have both seen in person and heard passersby mention as a desired outcome. When we’re visiting Port Townsend, WA we stay with a man who has a small cottage called Hammond House on his single lot in the backyard that he rents out as an accommodation. It’s low maintenance for him. He hires a local cleaner to come in and clean up the space after guests leave and the cottage is self sustaining. It has wifi, cable, a sauna, full bathroom, big bedroom area and an enclosed patio/seating area all in a very small space. It’s roomy and perfectly comfortable. The in-city location is perfect – you can walk everywhere. He has located the cottage in such a way that his own house doesn’t look over into it and vice versa. Privacy for everyone and a boost of income for the owner. I can think of a lot of ways that something like this might be a benefit for a variety of people, including guests.

The Hammond House Guest Cottage in Port Townsend, WA. Nestled in the single city lot sized back yard of the main house, this little cottage is tiny and a perfect size for visitors to the fun and artsy waterside town.

The Hammond House Guest Cottage in Port Townsend, WA. Nestled in the single city lot sized back yard of the main house, this little cottage is tiny and a perfect size for visitors to the fun and artsy waterside town.

Another closely tied option to this one would be to rent the space out on a regular basis. A tiny space that is well designed offers a perfect living space for single people, couples or people with young families…everything would depend on the people wanting to rent. Depending on your location, you could easily rent out your tiny house or cottage on a full time basis if that was your wish. It would pay for itself quickly in that case and might pay you back in other unexpected ways as well (e.g. as a chance to meet interesting people). Call me biased, but people interested in these small living spaces seem to be pretty interesting people… 

Meeting as many people as we do (something about the house being so tiny, along with the bright orange color must wear away at the inhibitions we sometimes have about just walking up to people and starting conversations), we’ve heard a variety of other ideas for small houses. An architect we met last weekend had entered a sustainable urban development contest and submitted a fantastic idea for compact urban living in Vancouver, BC using railroad cars as the basis for construction. These cars are compact, recycled, and can be stacked for vertical rather than horizontal living; critical in an urban area where space is at a premium. Using color and creativity, he had designed a little urban oasis of tiny living spaces made even better by the incorporation of green growing spaces outdoors that could be enjoyed by all the residents as well as passersby (who doesn’t like green spaces, especially in cities?). The storage containers were boldly colored, stacked several stories high and made a real statement visually. It was fantastic and suited the urban landscape perfectly. While not applicable for most of us, this is just another example of how only our thinking about things limits the potential use of small space.

Another advantage of a tiny house or small cottage on a lot or piece of land is that they are never so large that they take up a tremendous amount of space. In and of themselves, they provide a focal point of great visual appeal in the home/garden landscape. Cute, cozy and inviting, they make a statement about staying in place and enjoying what’s around you.

I’m only touching on a few ideas here. There are obviously many many more and in many ways, our imaginations are the only limitation to what can be done with a tiny house once it’s not being used for full time occupation. Once a home, always a home of some sort!

Please feel free to share your own comments on using tiny and small houses, I’m eager to hear what you have to say!

There’s No Time Like the Present

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

The average annual salary of an American worker in the year 1920 was about $1,250 with a $2500 annual salary considered more than enough to live a ‘good’ life. In that same decade, an American could buy a new kit house or bungalow, like The Winona from SEARS, for between $744-$1998, the price tags varying depending on the size (there were two choices) and amenities a family chose. Now, consider how much house the annual salary of today’s average American worker might buy. Not likely the whole house as it did in the 1920′s!

Not everything we learn when reading about architecture is strictly related to design or detail. Some of the more interesting aspects of building are sociological, ideological or philosophical in nature. For example, the Craftsman and Bungalow movements along with the Arts and Crafts movement in North America had strong philosophical foundations. Did you know that one of the reasons that the Arts and Crafts movement began was that artisans were concerned that due to mechanization and industrialization, human ties to the natural world would be destroyed? The incorporation of natural lines, unique design, and a wonderfully stubborn emphasis on the hand-crafted – often regardless of the time involved – in this movement was largely in response to this concern.

Here is another example. When the Bungalow movement was fully underway in the early 20th century, it was seen as a way of providing quality homes for working class people. The Bungalow was meant to be a healthful, clean, hygienic and affordable home for regular, ordinary people. The inclusion of attractive detail was considered something that was for the average person, something for everyone, not just the wealthy. Indeed, the Bungalow movement in many ways was probably a far more successful movement in terms of being accessible to regular people (meaning not uber rich) than the 20th century Arts and Crafts movement; those pieces of art, due to the length of time involved in their crafting, tended to be incredibly expensive even in their day. While they were rebellious in this sense and certainly took a stand against mechanization/industrialization of production, these were not pieces for the everyday person, ultimately.

In many ways, the more we learn about Bungalows, the more we love them. We aren’t exactly purists, but we love the squat shapes and classic lines, the appealing porches and friendly faces of older style homes. I’m talking a lot about Bungalows in this entry, but clearly, Bungalows are not our only architectural interest area. Still, that the Bungalow movement was originally envisioned as a home for “the masses” to enjoy without bankruptcy is an interesting and inspiring additional aspect of our appreciation for them. In keeping with this vein, we’ve considered a couple of different things when it comes to our personal design vision for THE small HOUSE CATALOG. If you’ve done what we’ve done over the years and have done a lot of research into house plans online (or from other sources), you’re well aware that plans are typically quite expensive. They can cost absurd amounts of money (sorry if I am offending anyone). We have chosen to keep our plan costs comparatively low because it seems in keeping with the original thinking behind the movement of the Bungalow. It’s one of our ways of carrying on the tradition.

Any kind of dream, be it to compete in the Olympics or to build a Beekeeper’s Bungalow, starts in the heart and mind and then gets carried on through persistence and hard work from the internal to the external. Our plans are like that. We want to see them built and we want to see them built by people who want to build them. Good quality houses, not just built but crafted, should be available to everyone. Part of their being available is being affordable.

Today, if the median family income in America averages $55-80,000 and the average cost of higher quality materials for one of our houses is less than that, well, that means we’ve found one way to get back on track.

We want our small house plans to continue to help others break ground on their own ‘small’ dreams.

Measure Twice, Cut (the check) Once

Jamie's MusingsJamieComment

Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple. – Dr. Seuss

Let me explain:When mentioning you’re building or considering building a house have you ever had people tell you that it’s cheaper to build a big house rather than a small one – or something along those lines?  I’ve heard this before – from professionals – and I’ve never understood why someone would say something like this (other than to get you to spend more money). Usually, it’s phrased something along the lines of: If you’re already spending the money to build then you might as well make everything bigger because it’s cheaper to finish a larger space than it is a smaller one.” This is a confusing suggestion – some might even say crafty one depending on who’s making it – and I’m here to tell you this piece of advice is unlikely to save you any money.

All things being equal, a small and large house will contain similar features. For instance, each one will have a kitchen with appliances, like a refrigerator, range, dishwasher, etc. If you divide the cost of these appliances by the square footage of the small house and the square footage of a large house, well, sure enough, you’ll discover that the appliances cost less per square foot in the larger house. If you do this with all the elements of the smaller house, you’ll also find that it costs more per square foot to build than the larger one. But this does not mean that the larger house is less expensive to build!

We finished the project just fine, but had some amusing experiences along the way. When it came time to pay for the extra flooring, for example, we found it a real benefit to have a truck to sell!  We had a trusty Ford F-150 with a slant six engine that ran like a beautiful thing. We used it to haul materials, tools, and to function as a shed for the whole course of the building process. It was a great truck. Shawn loved it, especially. But it was surprisingly easy to sell, even for Shawn, when the time came to pay for the flooring (or persist on plywood subfloor)!  We had to cobble together a couple of other non traditional payment methods for some other finishing work projects and we actually learned some strong skills as a result of having our budget stretched so much as a result of the bigger footprint. Drywall we were terrified of doing, really believing it to be a project best undertaken by the “experts.”  It’s amazing what requesting a bid for work can do to your skillset sometimes!  We got the bids back on the project and discovered that we were the experts we had been waiting for. We got really good at drywalling!  It’s hard work and we aren’t as fast (by a loooooong shot) as the pros, but we got the work done, learned a lot, and the end result fit our budget. Likewise with many other things.When we moved to Maine and built our first house, it turned out to be bigger than we’d expected. Admittedly, part of the reason it was bigger than expected was related to our new status as designer-builders. But a large part of it was related to our trying to avoid building “too small.”  Without even knowing how things would look, without even laying out stakes, we were already concerned that our footprint would be “too small.” Despite the worries we had about having enough room in the house for ourselves and potential resale, in the end, the house was definitely too large! And the larger space translated quite elegantly into more cost for finishing, etc. (now there’s an equation that DID work!).

For this post, I merely want to mention that a potentially more expensive higher quality product is affordable to us because the scale of our project doesn’t require a million dollar budget to accomplish.It’s really a pleasure to start a building project when you can foresee your budget clearly. Small designs truly facilitate this. Though we have designed a small house, in fact, it still seems large! But it looks “right” to us size-wise, and it’s going to be manageable from so many perspectives. We’ll be doing the work entirely ourselves – from sill plates to the roof – with some help from friends raising walls here and there. We know our budget and we don’t expect any big surprises, though we’ve of course allotted a small allowance (10%) for things unforeseen. But the extras won’t have to cover material for hundreds or thousands of square feet in size. We can use the materials we want because it’s not such a huge project that some splurges in material are impossible to afford. For example, we are choosing to insulate with sheep wool sourced from Oregon Shepherd. We’ve always been interested in wool as an insulator and now we have a home to try it out on. On our first house, it would be way too expensive for our personal budget. But with our design, it’s affordable, and in fact only a little more expensive than using an alternative we weren’t too crazy about. By the way, we’ll be updating the blog with a couple of posts specifically about our experiences with Oregon Shepherd and a more in depth exploration of why we chose it, so stay tuned.

To me, small is beautiful. It’s been said before, it’s going to be said forever, at least by some of us. Small houses give people the ability to handle building projects on their own, finish projects in a reasonable time, make the building project financially attainable for more people, and allow for the incorporation of the quality things you’d most like to see and experience in a home. And if you exceed your budget while building a small house, you probably won’t have to sell your truck in order to cover the gap (I think these are great pluses, and not just because we miss seeing our big green truck and are sometimes humorously hauling materials in a compact sedan!).

I probably could have written this blog entry in a more concise fashion. If I were to rewrite it, it would read as follows:  Some people (even people who love you and are excited for you) may warn you, with something akin to dread in their voices, not to build “too small.” Others may make baffling statements that sound like bad math equations (which they are): “If you’re going to build, you might as well build BIG because it’s cheaper in the long run.” My advice: trust yourself first and build what feels right to you.

Take care of that, and the rest will follow, from mudsills to ridgeline.