Four years on…

And Casa Chica is still my permanent residence! Mostly. I was working full-time in Minneapolis for a spell in 2019 and signed a year lease on an apartment, so I decided to shut down the little house for the winter. It’s too hard (on my nerves) to make sure it stays warm enough if I’m not there mostly full time. So last fall I drained all the water (hopefully, we’ll find out in spring), added some anti-freeze, removed any consumables that shouldn’t freeze and shut the door. I check on it from time to time, and all is well. I miss it, but it is awfully nice living in a place where the water comes out of the tap without any more effort from me than a flip of the faucet handle and I don’t have to clean toilet buckets in below zero weather. I’m getting soft as I approach 50. But the hardest thing about living in Casa Chica is living in it in the winter. I haven’t had condensation problems that I’ve heard horror stories about, but I designed with that in mind (like with the passive air inlet) and have employed other solutions like running a dehumidifier on really cold nights to minimize the ice buildup on the inside of the windows.

I’m also happy to report that Casa Chica successfully moved over the road to her current  location! It was only a couple of miles, but we had to go up a very steep hill and I’ve no idea how much she weighs so we borrowed the biggest truck we could find (a full ton, I think, and it was struggling up the hill). I was nervous, but she did great!

Technically it’s still not finished. This fall I finally got the shower completed, minus hanging the shower curtain, although I’ve yet to try it out (but yes, I have showered in the past 4 years. Gyms and friends, or a garden hose in the summer). It’s still waiting on some interior trim, there still aren’t doors for the storage attics, and I never did give all of the interior wood walls a clear coat. That’s all coming. But as an update to my last post in September 2015:

  • The exterior is stained! See photos. I used Bioshield Resin and Oil Stain Finish #3. My friend Andrea had to talk me into the two-tone, but now I love it. I had it professionally done and the painter had never used it before so he sprayed it on. This summer was particularly harsh to the stain on the southwest facing side so I put on another coat of blue and will probably have to do some work on the orange/red side next year. I think it needs to be applied thicker than the spray was able to achieve. I also had all the mis-matched window frames painted a dark brown to match the color that came on the front door.
  • All water features work, and over the first few months of living in the house I developed a system for filling the fresh water tank and emptying the gray water tank (hint: do it at the same time, or run the risk of the gray water tank backing up into the shower). For the first two summers I kept the water hose connected to the house for on-demand water without having to fill a tank, but the hoses were out in the sun and got GROSS. And cleaning them was a pain. So for the past couple of years I’ve filled the water tank year-round, about once a week (without a shower). Not that big of a deal, but tricky in the winter. I’ve found it has to be above about 20F (and I have to move fast) to be able to keep the hoses from freezing so quickly they block the flow. I’m not super impressed with my PrecisionTemp RV-550 tankless water heater – it’s not exactly instantaneous so I try to collect the cold water while I wait for the hot – but I’m not sure what I would replace it with. And I did end up getting a small Flojet diaphragm pump that works great. It’s a bit noisy, but I’m used to it.
  • I found that the cheapo (relatively) LED bulbs that came with my Home Depot can lights worked without buzzing, so that’s what I put in my track lights as well. I also learned that you can’t have dimmers on two switches on the same circuit. I got a seizure-inducing (not really) light show.
  • All of the shelves and built-ins have been in since not too long after I moved in. That’s truly what makes the house 100% livable even though it’s 90% finished. Also in a long time ago is the 2-burner Ramblewood GC2-43P propane stove (love it, no complaints). I have a Broan Allure stove hood (I don’t think it’s made anymore) that doesn’t work as well as I’d like it to, but I think it’s a function of being too high above the stove than an equipment malfunction. There’s a window behind the stove so I didn’t have much choice on putting the hood lower. And I’ve learned that I can’t have the hood on high at the same time I have a fire going in the wood stove or I’ll fill the house up with smoke lickety split.
  • Also in is the gorgeous cork flooring. I think everyone who has been on the house has commented on it first. I bought it through a green home designer/supplier in the Twin Cities that has since been bought out so I’ve no idea where to get it anymore. I haven’t washed the whole floor in the four years it’s been there (I take my shoes off at the door and spot wipe spills/water), and you can’t tell by looking. And it adds such character to the look of the place.
  • I’ve been using my Kimberly wood stove every winter since I moved in, and I’ll be honest in saying it hasn’t been an easy road to loving it as I do now. A very large part of the problem (maybe all of it) was that I bought any-old-pellet-stove-pipe locally rather than the brand that Unforgettable Fire recommended, and it turns out that it’s not sealed as well as it needs to be for the stove to burn super efficiently. The dealer from whom I bought the stove, Vanessa at Eagle Rise Trading Company, has gone over the top in helping me troubleshoot via detailed emails, phone calls, and even a trip to Wisconsin to spend a long afternoon doing everything she could to “upgrade” the seals on the stove itself (mine was an earlier iteration) and check my installation (with live phone advice from Roger, the stove’s inventor and CEO of Unforgettable Fire). She also convinced me that I needed to replace the chimney pipe, which I did in 2018, and the stove worked like a champ last winter. I’ve also learned to use compressed sawdust logs when I want a long overnight burn, and with that I can wake up to coals 8 hours after I fed the stove before bed. Plus, it’s still so damn charming, especially with my custom metal hearth pad…

And what would I do differently? Not much, but:

  • #1 for sure – I’d install a secondary source of heat that would keep the place warm when I’m not there, probably propane, like a Williams High Efficiency Direct Vent Furnace. Right now my backup heat is a plug-in electric heater, which is not very efficient or reliable. If the power goes out, so does my heater, and it doesn’t come back on (hence my reluctance to try to heat the house with it if I’m not there most of the time). I’ve tried an oil-filled electric radiator too, but the one I bought doesn’t have a thermostat so it’s really hard to know where to set it (again, hence my reluctance…) and it doesn’t heat the whole space as well without a blower (yes, I could use a fan, but geez). I could put in cheap baseboard electric, but I still want to leave the off-grid solar option open. So propane. I can still install a direct-vent furnace and may next summer, but it would have been a lot easier if we’d done it while the house was being built.
  • I also may have given more consideration to installing a mini split system. It would be an efficient source of backup heat as well as a welcome splash of air conditioning on the few days a year it would be nice to have. It’s still not sufficient to get me through the coldest days of winter – the lowest temperature rating for any I’ve seen is -5F, and we can go into the -20s or even -30s – so I’d still need another backup heater.
  • I’d put another outlet on the wall opposite my bed.

Onward and upward! And I’m looking forward to filling the tank and throwing open the windows this spring, and spending more of my nights sleeping in my tiny house.

 

Designing for the climate

I live in western Wisconsin. We can get as warm and humid as the Gulf Coast in August and as bitterly cold and snowy and dry as inland Alaska in January (Anchorage has a higher average winter temperature than ours). As I write this, it’s -8F and sunny at 4 pm, with a wind chill of -30F. And I plan to live in my house year-round (though I haven’t written off the possibility of hauling it to Mexico every winter). So…some of the tiny house systems designed for California, say, are not going to work when it’s -20F. Nor is R20 insulation in the floor. Summer is a little easier to deal with: I can get water to the house via hose, collect gray water in barrels and open windows for ventilation.

We have spent by far the most time in the design of this house on making it comfortable and usable and modern-house-like during the winter. And here’s what we came up with:

1. 2×6 walls, 2×8 floors and rafters for more insulation capacity. I wanted to go with a more environmentally-friendly insulation than spray foam or rigid insulation, which meant less R value per inch (there’s always a trad-off that makes the environmental friendliness possibly less friendly). The 6″ walls were easy because we had already decided to chuck the 8.5′ maximum width restriction. We are sticking with the 13.5′ maximum height so I initially balked at the loss of space with the thicker floors and ceilings, but I was convinced by the promise of warmer tootsies in the winter. Of course bigger wood also equals more weight, but we used 1x6s for some of the studs and spaced the floor joists and rafters as wide as we could. I ended up choosing UltraTouch denim insulation. My builder is not entirely happy because the stuff is IMPOSSIBLE to cut (I’ll post a solution if we find one), but he still says he’d rather spend a day sawing away at the denim than picking fiberglass out of his skin, clothes, eyes, lungs, hair, etc. The floors and ceilings are R30 (double that in the raised floor of the center section) and the walls are R21. Ostensibly. The insulation didn’t fluff up as much as expected, so in the floor we were also able to put in an inch of rigid foam (makes up for my previous environmentally friendly trade-off?). That will probably be the case for the ceiling too.

2. Gray water tank in the floor of the bathroom. When researching for our design I found people using gray water tanks, but they were storing them beneath their trailers or in other places that would freeze solid here on the first 0-degree night. Or it was taking up valuable space under a counter somewhere. Our solution? We raised the floor 8″ in the bathroom (like we did the center section of the house) and created a pocket for a 30-gallon tank. So it has ~R30 insulation below it and around it, and I’ll be able to access it through a panel in the floor. I wanted to make sure it could be easily removed if I needed to replace it, or for any other reason. I’ll also open the panel to open the drain valve when I need to pump out the full tank. I chose 30 gallons sort of randomly – I wagged that I’d use about 4 gallons a day on average, and I don’t want to have to drain the tank more than once a week. You can order tanks of all shapes and sizes from www.tankdepot.com (be sure to order a bit in advance – it takes a few weeks). The drain is 2″ PVC with a plug that I’ll open to transfer the gray water to a portable tank in the back of a truck, which I’ll then haul to the local wastewater treatment plant. Voila! Easy on paper, the practice is of course yet to be tested. It of course also remains to be seen how quickly I’ll fill up the tank. If I end up having to pump it every other day it might not be much fun either. I’m not going to have any black water – my toilet will be a Loveable Loo type affair. I lived in a yurt with a bucket toilet for a couple of months and found it to be a very good solution.

3. Fresh water tank in the loft above the bathroom. This tank also needs to be within the insulated envelope, and I was more willing to give up storage space in a less accessible loft than under a counter. I haven’t purchased this tank yet and we haven’t completely figured out how and where it will be filled, but I will have an RV pump (I’m looking at a Flojet Quiet Quad diaphragm pump) and not rely solely on gravity. It will be another 30-gallonish size.

4. Kimberly wood stove for heat. How to heat? Big question. Originally I wanted the house to be off the grid, but the economics didn’t work out. Even so, electrical heat was never a consideration (although I may have a small baseboard heater that I can turn on just high enough to keep my house from freezing if I leave for a day or more). I read a few blogs that said the Dickinson propane stove so beloved in many tiny homes isn’t really up to the job of “real” winters. Kerosene is stinky. I was initially opposed to wood heat – a lot of work to gather and haul wood, it has to be practically in the center of the room to meet clearance requirements, constant cleaning up of wood dust and detritus, black soot all over hands and clothes if I get within 6 inches of the stove, having to get out of my cozy bed every three hours to stoke it, heavy, etc – but then I found the Kimberly. It’s expensive, yes, and I’ll still have to gather and haul wood, but it’s super efficient and can purportedly burn for 8 hours. It’s also lightweight and doesn’t require much for clearance from walls. I’m also not as worried about heating myself right out of the house as I would be with a traditional cast iron stove. I’m super excited to try it out.

5. Active exhaust and passive make-up ventilation. I’ve been kept awake at night after reading horror stories of tiny houses and condensation. There’s very little out there about exhausting air from or providing make-up air to tiny spaces. I looked into HRVs (one tiny house builder in Quebec that I corresponded with installed the Lunos e2, which is supposedly sized right for a tiny house) but they’re expensive and my builder wasn’t convinced that we needed to go that far with it. Heating with wood will dry the air, but will it be enough? After much researching, hemming and hawing we’re going with a bathroom fan (Panasonic WhisperFit), a stove hood (Broan Allure) and a passive air inlet (Therma-Stor Fresh 100). The Kimberly stove has its own fresh air inlet, but it’s contained within the stove. I really hope this works, and I’ll probably find out next winter. If it doesn’t, we might be re-thinking that HRV as Plan B. Either way, I’ll post how things are going. That goes for all of these experiments in tiny house winter living.

From infatuation at first sight… to floor!

I’ve been in love with the idea of tiny houses since my mom showed me a newspaper article with Jay Shafer and his original Epu about a dozen years ago. I pored over Tumbleweed floor plans on the website, trying to decide which one was perfect for me. I got absolutely giddy over tiny appliances, tiny sinks, tiny spice jars. I cheered as the tiny house movement grew and more people chose to resist the pull (or push?) to keep up with the Joneses in the 5,000-sf monstrosity next door. In short, just thinking about tiny houses made me happy. But I wasn’t entirely sure what I would DO with one. Did I need a guest house? A vacation home? I had a 12-acre farm with a cozy, almost-completely-renovated 1,000-sf home and a fantastic 4-stall barn with indoor riding arena. I have always wanted a farm, and I loved mine! Until… I started adding up what owning it was costing me, both in money and in time, and all I could see ahead was a terrific “get into debt” plan. And it wasn’t always fun doing a lot of the work by myself, or having to call on my generous (but long-suffering) parents to give up another of their Saturdays to help me with some project or other. So… then comes November 5, 2011. I’m doing my daily meditation practice when the answer comes, so clearly and rightly that I haven’t questioned it since: Sell The Farm, Build the Little House. Whoa. The farm is on the market two months later.

Fast forward about 15 months (ugh to the housing market downturn), and the farm is no longer mine. The little house, by now already dubbed “Casa Chica” by the Design Team (me, my designer friend and my builder friend), is still very vaguely on paper, so I’m housesitting around. My stuff has been widely dispersed to relatives, Goodwill, Craigslist buyers, etc. and everything I own is in about 20 plastic bins in my parents’ basement. Fast forward again to now, and after about six housesitting gigs and a two-month stint in a yurt I’m still in much the same situation. Except! I’m renting a room at a friend’s house, and Casa Chica is no longer a figment of my imagination (and Sketchup)! It Is Begun.

The Casa Chica design started as a Tumbleweed knock-off, especially after the Design Team attended a Tumbleweed workshop in Madison, WI. After several iterations, we settled on a design influenced heavily by the Tall Man’s Tiny House without the bump-in entry, dormer or sleeping loft (I want to be able to stand up in my bedroom). We also decided to throw maximum road width to the wind and have made it 10 feet wide. It’s 27 feet long, mostly because that was the length of the used trailer I found on Craigslist.

I’ll add posts later about other design and material decisions that have been made, especially as they relate to designing for the cold winters here in western Wisconsin. I’ve found only a handful of people who are planning to live year-round in their tiny house in similar conditions, and I’ve learned a lot from what they’ve shared. I want to add to that body of information, and I plan to keep posting after I’ve moved in about what works and what doesn’t. But for now: there’s a floor!