Non-combustible construction in relation to Tiny Houses
In response to Kim’s tiny house fire, I decided to write the following article that it may save some grief to others by discussing an alternative to wood for construction methods of tiny houses. While this article primarily discusses steel framing compared to wood framing, framing certainly is a major component in our construction. After we change our framing we can begin swapping out components and lower our combustible construction materials significantly by using items such as metal furring, z-bar and non-combustible siding. Inside we can replace wood pine surfaces with plastic laminates, gypsum or metals again. This is not to say we cannot use wood, but by using less we greatly reduce our risk exposure to fire and other problems that arise in tiny houses.
Many people are choosing to build with wood for their tiny houses due to the ease of use, availability and perceived thermal superiority over other materials. However, there is a better alternative that trumps wood in every category: steel studs. Now many people have concerns about steel studs which I will address on in order.
What is it about the “Do It Yourself” and independent nature of tiny house builders that make us a little lenient about safety? Recently, Macy Miller of MiniMotives made waves across Facebook because she fell off the roof of her tiny house and landed in the hospital.
Because of Macy’s misfortune, I thought this was a good time to talk to the tiny house community about safety. Many of us, myself certainly included, are not professional builders and a tiny house is our first project. Matt and I did much of our building together, but occasionally he worked on his own and he is a bit more of a risk taker than I am. He would climb up on the top of the walls or the rafters on a regular basis. Neither of us ever sustained more than minor injuries like small cuts and bruises. I once had a drill dropped on me from the loft, but that was more startling than damaging. But us tiny house builders do sometimes put safety on the back burner.
I reached out to Macy to find out more about what happened. It all started because she found herself away from her house for a while. She over committed, thinking she would be further along with the project by now. When she got back to work on the house it was a little overwhelming and she felt the need to rush. Since she had been away from building for a while there was some cleaning that needed to be done before she could begin the work she had planned. “It was all going well with a wash rag and a bucket of water but I continually had to go up and down the ladder to get new water every 2-3 feet or so,” she said. It was taking a lot of time so she had a seemingly inspired idea; “I brought the hose up on the roof with me, I stood-slash-sat up-slope from the water and cleaned the seams a thousand times faster. It totally worked! I got the seams cleaned in a fraction of the time.” That was when the trouble started. She told me she was being “Super careful and super aware,” but that isn’t always good enough when it comes to construction safety.
Henry David Thoreau is often held up as the first tiny house adventurer; the Granddaddy of our movement, as it were. His history is complicated and interesting and to truly understand his place in the American narrative one must pour through Walden and Civil Disobedience. His philosophies are almost always shoehorned into those of his intellectual counterparts in the transcendental movement but he never quite fits there. If you’re willing to take some time to read his writing you can find plenty of inspiration for tiny house living.
Thoreau is often considered an important figure in modern environmentalism – he was an environmental scientist after all. When we put it into perspective we understand that he studied the environment in a time before cars, holes in the ozone, and the other crises we face today. Environmentalism was important to him and he not only studied it as a scientist but he revered it as a religion and a way of life. However, the motivation of building a tiny house on a friend’s land was about more than trading lightly on nature. In my estimation his real impetus was to live deliberately.
“I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.”
Living Deliberately is what I think the Tiny House Movement is all about. The common denominators for all of the people I’ve met and spoken to who have built a small house chose this experience because they want to live deliberately. We want to separate ourselves from our complicated lives. We tend to be very purposeful in every decision we make along the way. I think this is what Thoreau taught us with his experiment at Walden.