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Building a Mortgage-free Tiny House by the Seat of My Pants

Building a Mortgage-free Tiny House by the Seat of My Pants – Part 1 – by Shirley Loomis


Years ago virtually every home in this country was built by the men and women who lived in them. They were homes, barns, outbuildings of one form or another, silos; homes for people, crops, and livestock. These were places of shelter and it was envisioned by the builders that they would serve as such for years on into the future, long after they were built, and perhaps long after the builders themselves were gone.

When I started building my tiny house I went back to that premise of building; the owner-builder, the homesteader in need of shelter, because in many ways that’s exactly where I found myself.

I looked at simple building books, books on sheds and small outbuildings, the books on the market (before Kindle and Amazon) that dealt with cottages and tiny homes that were built with the intention owners would add on to them at a later date, books on writer’s cottages and fishermen’s cottages, treehouses, huts and forts; anything that was built from scratch, and constructed without intricate detail or complexity.

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Over time, as my search continued, I came across plans that were specifically designed to be built on top of trailer frames or flatbeds. They were portable and they were called tiny houses. Some looked like gypsy caravans, others like the cottages I’d been reviewing with the only exception being that these were on wheels. They were portable and ideal for someone like me whose future seemed continually subject to revision.

I built my tiny house in exactly the same way the owner-builder of yesteryear built their home. Actually, given that we have some things available to us that were not available to them I’m guessing I had a few advantages at my disposal. In any event, at the end of the day, my tiny house was built with absolutely no plan, not even a sketch.

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The trailer, purchased on Craigslist was a car hauler. It sat higher off the ground than what I originally wanted and was longer than I had planned on going but the price was right so one way or another I was going to make it work.

The trailer was in need of much love. You can’t put up a sound structure if you build it on an unsound foundation. I put in a new brake system, put on four new tires, stripped off all the old decking, wire brushed every bit of metal I could get to, fortified anything that looked like it might need fortifying, applied four or five coats of Rustoleum, installed new decking (it’s amazing what eighty holes drilled into quarter inch plate steel will do to drill bits, even when they are built for drilling through metal), and then thought to myself, “Oh my gosh, I really have what I need in order to be able to build this thing!”

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Next came the framing that would accommodate the subfloor and floor. I insulated the daylights out of that thing because I hate to have to put my feet on a floor that’s any colder than it needs to be but I knew I wasn’t going to go to the trouble or expense of a heated floor. This is where the muscles started to get their workout. Plywood (I didn’t want any OSB anywhere in the place) can get a little heavy if you aren’t accustomed to handling it, especially when trying to hold it firmly on gusty autumn days!

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Once the subfloor was in place it was as if my canvas had been primed and was ready to take whatever I wanted to give it.

Now what?

I went to this great little builder’s supply outlet to see what they could offer in the way of inspiration. It’s one of those places where you never know what you will find so if you want it, buy it then because it may not be there next time. I came home with an idea in my head and a whole bunch of windows, seven to be exact! I knew I wanted my tiny house to be bright and sunny, especially if it was going to spend any time in the north. I wanted light and lots of it.

Back to the construction books with lots and lots of easy to understand pictures. I needed to ‘see’ how to frame in windows. I knew where to place the studs. Standard framing called for sixteen inches on center, with some tiny house building books opting for twenty-four in an attempt to keep the overall weight down. I went with structural integrity and used the sixteen inch standard.

My goal was to build to a height of twelve and a half feet from the ground to the finished roof peak knowing that because the process was new to me it was highly likely I would overshoot slightly. Building to this height allowed me to use dimensional lumber, keep everything to heights I could manage (I’m terrified of heights), have a slight pitch to my roof which would allow me front and rear storage lofts, make my mistakes possibly ending up a little high, and at the end of the process still be well below what was the legally allowable height for traveling down the road.

It worked.

After the tiny house was finished there was an issue with the leaf springs. All four of the springs had to be replaced and this added a bit more height than was originally factored in. Because of the original plan to build low I came in a little over twelve and a half feet but still well below thirteen. She was good to go anywhere I wanted to take her!

Some days it occurred to me that I had really hadn’t moved much beyond kindergarten. I still often went out into the cold without a jacket (most days only wore a sweatshirt), still needed lots of snacks (seldom stopped to eat real food), didn’t want to stop for a nap (though most days I sure could have used one), and I loved, loved, loved, my picture books! I don’t know where I would have been without books that clearly were made by other people like me, for other people like me; don’t tell me, show me.

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I framed the two long walls, framing in the windows where I wanted to position them. This is where the first vision of what I thought the end result might be started to formulate in my head. This is where I figured out which windows would go with which area of living space. One little one went to the kitchen area, and the other to the bathroom. The larger windows were positioned to allow light in the front which would be the living/sleeping area, and in the kitchen area. I love a bright sunny morning. By using this positioning I could get south sun if I so chose, but not have a big glass panel that would weaken structural integrity. Three windows close together were better than one big glass panel.

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The front door was the narrowest solid door I could find that was still listed as a building code allowable size for an exterior door. I made sure it opened inward since in snow regions it’s a little silly to have a door that opens out. Losing the floor space to an inward swinging door was not ideal but at the end of the day, with the way the layout took shape, it really wasn’t much of an issue at all.

This is the part where you better have a couple of friends, and strong ones sure can’t hurt your cause. Hefting an eighteen foot long wall by myself was just not happening. Further, there was no way for one person to hold it into place making sure it was plumb while securing it to the floor deck. The second wall was even more difficult because with one wall already up there was less deck space to work with and a couple of moderately to slightly framed women weren’t getting this thing from the ground up two and a half feet. It had to be raised from right on the deck. Once we had that done I could get the end walls up myself.

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My tiny house was built like a regular home would be built except that I chose to use plywood where many builders would opt for OSB. Once all the exterior plywood sheathing was in place, the house was wrapped and taped with Tyvek. And, once installed, doors and windows were tested and retested to make sure they continued to open and close as they should.

There is something very satisfying about entering your own front door, even when you look up and there is no roof!

The roof had a 12:4 pitch. At least I think it was 12:4. Remember, my math isn’t so good so it may have been a little closer to 12:5. Either way, it’s got a pitch but not a super steep one.

Sheathing the exterior meant getting scaffolding. There was no way for me to heft a sheet of plywood, hold it up to the building and screw it into place, all while trying to maintain my balance on a ladder. Again, since I opted for the safety of scaffolding, one of my gal pals came to my aide and held the sheathing in place while I used the screw gun. Yes, I know, the nail gun would have been faster but I knew this little structure would be subject to a lot of wind on the highway and I wanted it to hold tight.

At every opportunity I built thinking of hurricanes and earthquakes, using methods that would be applied to buildings built in areas prone to those events.

All that remained was the roof. It was time to add the second level of scaffolding. One just couldn’t get me up high enough. Now I was really scared!

Top plates in place, everything was nice and tight and square. It was time for the roof!

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The ridge pole wasn’t too much of a problem. I was able to use one level of scaffolding and do that from the interior of the tiny house. Many of the rafters also went into place from within. Sheathing, papering, ridge vent, and shingling, all had to be done by climbing twelve feet into the air from outside, securing my materials with a sling and hefting them up or tossing them over my shoulder while I climbed. Remember, I worked year round so sometimes I climbed to the top only to find out I was working on a fairly icy deck. I will never forget the first time I had to climb out onto the roof. All I could think of was, “I am twelve and a half feet in the air climbing out onto something that I built. What am I, nuts?”

Stay tuned for Part 2 (the interior).

Related: Woman in her 50s Builds Tiny Home

Learn more about Shirley at her blog www.coppertinwoodandwill.wordpress.com.

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Alex

Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!




{ 10 comments… add one }
  • amanda June 7, 2014, 3:46 pm

    This is so helpful! We will be building our own tiny house starting this summer once the right trailer comes along, and reading this help to put my mind at ease. Thank you!

  • Brian June 7, 2014, 4:00 pm

    What an inspiration it was reading Part 1 of your story. Cant wait for Part 2.
    You really are an amazing lady who did all this without a whine or a whimper and achieved so much. Cheers from Australia.

  • shawn June 7, 2014, 4:47 pm

    Interesting…

    Am I the only one who has concerns about this going down the road at 55 or 65 mph with the shingles? And/or the front facing door/window? How about the 55/65 mph wind under the roof overhang? Seems that ‘at speed’ this thing could be a real danger to drive behind…

    Also, weight rating… If the original leaf springs gave out, what does that say for the original axels?

    Passion is a wonderful thing, but Science is, well, Science…

    shawn

    • Shirley June 8, 2014, 2:19 am

      @ Shawn, This trailer was second hand. The leaf springs needed replacing before I did anything but not being familiar with trailers at that time I didn’t know it. Since being completed it’s been through a hurricane, blizzard, 85 mph winds in city traffic, and 3 hrs in pouring rain at highway speeds.

  • Ben Lunt June 7, 2014, 6:23 pm

    What a great job!! This is a real interesting and energizing look at a Tiny House project. I always like the innovations individuals invent to personalize their Tiny houses, but this is one of those detailed “Build the Box” photo spreads that really gets you excited.

    As far as the concerns about the tow, and the speeds, there is some real concern there. Not so much the speed – and well built little house can withstand 60 to 70 mph wind gusts without coming apart. In fact, the smaller they are, the less loadinggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggggga

  • Ben Lunt June 7, 2014, 6:28 pm

    My keyboard just stuck. I hope I can correct that post when it shows up. The keyboard gave me a karate chop and a kick in the chest and an atomic wedgie – which explains the long line of gggggggggggggggggggg’s . anyway ……….

  • Pyotr Kot June 8, 2014, 9:10 am

    Fantastic building story and beautiful home! If possible could you please post a list of those books you used to get it so right. Thanks

  • Scott July 2, 2014, 9:02 am

    I love your beautiful home. Could you please tell me the size of the trailer you used ? It looks to be a decent size. Any recommendations on some of the books you referenced??
    Thanks for sharing.

  • Kazarie August 9, 2014, 11:09 pm

    This is awesome! I’m doing as much research as possible so I can get started on my own tiny home. I’m a little confused on the flooring step- pictures 6 and 7 I believe- how did you secure it to the trailer?

    Also, what are some of the steps you took to make sure that the structure was as sound as possible (like the one you mentioned about using screws rather than nails)? Do you have any other useful tips for a construction novice?

    Will you be creating a loft for sleeping or storage?

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