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Tips for Tiny House Construction Safety

Article by Laura LaVoie

What is it about the “Do It Yourself” and the 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 washrag 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.

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Macy's Tiny House And Safety During Construction

What she created, she said, was an elevated slip and slide. “In retrospect, there are any number of things I should have and could have done differently but, what I did do was walk across the deathtrap I just made with the exact same results any person would expect.  I fell on my ass and slid out of control off the roof, sliding the full 9′ of slope, gathering speed, and hurling myself off the ledge dropping 11′ onto the asphalt below.”

Macy broke her ankle when she landed on it and suffered a compression fracture in her spine.  She also tried to catch herself on the roof as she slid off and only succeeded in spraining her wrist. “In the end, I came out with relatively minor injuries,” she said.

Macy’s spirits are high, though. “My mom’s last words to me were ‘don’t fall off the roof’.  You should always listen to your mom,” she joked. There were two things that Macy did that she would like the Tiny House community to use as a cautionary tale; never work 100% alone and don’t wait to seek medical attention.

Tips for Tiny House Construction

Tiny house builders should not consider themselves exempt from basic safety standards. The most important are:

  • Heights
  • Tools (such as saws)
  • Eye and hand protection

When we first started our own Tiny House build, the book Working Alone by John Carroll was recommended to us. This book is geared toward individuals like us who want to be in charge of our build from start to finish without relying on professionals. Carroll covers safety as well as general construction. I recommend this book to anyone considering a tiny house so they may avoid Macy’s fate.  The book is available in paperback or Kindle editions.

Let Macy’s tale be an informative one. Don’t let her suffer in vain. It will be a while before Macy is back building her tiny house. “I am unfortunately stuck in my body brace for 6-8 weeks and will be on crutches for 8-10 so no tiny house building for a while.” But she is willing to look on the bright side of things, “I am going to use the time off to study for my architectural exams, hopefully, knock out a few more of those.” Next time, Macy will keep her own safety advice in mind while working on her tiny house.

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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!
{ 22 comments… add one }
  • Michael
    August 21, 2012, 3:19 pm

    Don’t forget hearing protection too!

    • August 21, 2012, 7:05 pm

      Thanks Michael, good call!

    • Garth
      August 22, 2012, 5:25 pm

      Yep. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen people operating things like power saws without hearing protection, and I want to remind them you can’t get replacement parts for ears.

  • August 21, 2012, 10:26 pm

    Nice article. As a tiny house builder, a theatre rigger, and a trapezist, I probably take more risks than most about being in the air.

    First, Macy, I hope you heal quickly and comfortably.

    Second, if I can contribute two bits to the world: Slow down or stop when you feel tired. And believe it or not, eating a snack can help you stay focused. I get the most bloody knuckles when I have been going for 4 hours or more without a little snack. Never thought raisins could save your life, huh? Really!

    • August 22, 2012, 8:38 am

      Hi Abel, thanks so much for coming by, I love your builds by the way. Would love to feature one on THT soon..

      What a great tip to add on eating. I think that’s something a lot of us overlook sometimes. Thanks again!

      • August 22, 2012, 10:23 am

        Yes, thanks for the great tips about slowing down and eating when you’re hungry! There have certainly been times we’ve pushed it too far.

        I really want to know more about your life as a trapeze artist and your tiny house building!

  • Gene
    August 22, 2012, 10:21 am

    Be careful with air nail guns! My only injury when building my small haouse was when my wife shot a nail through a piece of plywood that hit me in the next room. It sunk a 16penny nail into my thumb! Ouch!

    • August 22, 2012, 10:24 am

      Oh goodness yes! I’m thankful that I never had a nail through a part of my body, but I have seen enough of those injuries to encourage caution!

  • Wendi
    August 22, 2012, 11:31 am

    Number One tip: Never work alone! Especially if it requires power tools and ladders (thinking of hubby on a ladder with an airtool makes me shudder).

    Number Two tip: Drink lots of water! I frequently bring out water and snacks to hubby while he is doing projects in case he gets busy and forgets.

  • mary
    August 22, 2012, 11:38 am

    By all means, also keep a cell phone nearby. Twice I have wished for one and didn’t have one… once when I got stuck on my roof and was afraid to come down and once when I was laying subfloor and managed (ah, yes, the brilliance) to get my fingers caught between two very precisely cut pieces of plywood-plywood that, by the way, was at that point very tightly wedged between the rest of the subfloor, my fingers, and three walls.

    Also, please don’t borrow a ladder. Buy a good one and use it. Contractors have refused to use mine because they don’t know where it’s been-and for good reason. You don’t know what rungs are loose or weak, and you don’t know if the feet are truly still slip-proof. (I know one who broke his own rule and borrowed a ladder from a client. The feet had been exposed to varnish or something in the past. He was hurt fairly badly.)

    My idea: health insurance is costly. Medical bills are outrageous. The “insurance” of finding someone to help and/or hiring someone to do the bits of work that could cause me or my new house the most damage is cheap by comparison.

    • August 22, 2012, 1:09 pm

      Absolutely great advice. A cell phone is critical for this type of work. Since our house is in a remote part of the country, we made sure that we are friends with our neighbors too so we can call them if we have an emergency.

  • jim sadler
    August 22, 2012, 12:07 pm

    One basic that we all ignore at times is that one should never work without another responsible person near at hand. Injuries do occur. The more remote the location the more vital it is to have help at hand and hopefully that help is well above average in abilities. If you are an hour away from any medical facility minor injuries can easily become major tragedies. A stand by safety helper that gets into a panic or hysteria will be of no use to you if you are injured and hopefully you will at least have a working cell phone. Although I will say that when injured badly the flow of blood can make it next to impossible to use the typical cell phone. It’s like heavy paint and you won’t be able to see the buttons.

    • August 22, 2012, 1:12 pm

      Going point about the “panic and hysteria.” As someone who often panics in situations, I’ve had to learn to be more calm. Luckily, we haven’t been faced with any real dire emergencies.

  • Davidr
    August 22, 2012, 11:05 pm

    The “Working Alone” book IS very good. I’ve had a copy of it for several months now and wish I’d gotten it years ago. Full of tips and techniques for doing things it would normally take 2 or more people to do. I’d worked out some of them myself and some things I hadn’t considered before. Definately a good read before starting a major project.

    Ms. Miller, I’m sorry you had to learn such an important lesson the hard way and you’re already aware that it could have been so much worse. I wish you a speedy recovery and that you can finish your home soon.

  • alice h
    August 23, 2012, 2:04 pm

    Also pay attention to that little inner voice when it says “this is a stupid idea” and never work in a rush. I was hand sawing a tiny piece from a small piece of wood and “knew” it wasn’t stable enough to keep steady and my hand was too close to the saw. Just as my brain was processing “dumb move” the whole thing slipped and I cut myself. Nasty, jagged, bloody, painful and took ages to heal. Heck of a visible scar (and constant reminder) but luckily the hard scar tissue inside went away eventually. It could have been much worse. I should have clamped the wood securely first and avoided the whole thing. It only takes seconds for disaster to strike, sacrificig a few minutes to avoid it is a good idea.

  • LaMar
    August 25, 2012, 12:29 pm

    Good reminder, I also fell off a ladder just as I was finishing construction on my cabin and landed on an already weak knee resulting in another surgery.

    Ladders are a big safety issue as are power tools, combustibles, eye, ear and head protection.

    Approach your small building project the same way you would if you were caring for a baby!

  • Stacey
    December 3, 2012, 1:26 pm

    Wow! Just beginning to think about attempting a similar project and am SO glad I found this post. I’ve done some simple remodeling, but nothing on this scale. Glad to have the greater risks pointed out.
    I’m always very safety conscious. Unfortunately, I am also almost always doing things alone. I’m sure this project will be no different. So, that recommended book is going on the Kindle and I will keep such things in mind in my design. Thanks so much!

  • March 4, 2014, 2:21 am

    Thanks for the great tiny bunny tips. It makes more sense in safety planning while constructing wonderful homes.

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