Tiny House Construction: The Finale!
Watch a time lapse to see what I have been up to:
Well it’s been a while! Things have come along nicely.
First up was installing the engineered maple flooring that I got a Craigslist deal on. The install was pretty straight forward once I got into a rhythm. I calculated that I had just the right amount, as long as I didn’t install flooring underneath the cabinets (that’ll save some weight too). I hoped that I would have enough to go under the fridge/freezer, but not the end of the world if I didn’t – I could just patch that with plywood and no-one (else) would ever know.
I was careful not to waste any material and didn’t cut a piece if I didn’t have to and in the end I had just enough to floor under the fridge as well. In fact I ended up wasting almost nothing and all I was left with was a single 1 foot piece. I was pretty pleased about that!
With the floor in I was now free to start building cabinets and furniture. I started on something easy – the shoe/bag cupboard to go beside the front door. This also doubles as a side table next to the sofa. I worked the plywood in the same way as I did the loft cubbies – sanding smooth both the faces and edges with a high grit and softening all of the corners before applying danish oil. Being really happy with the finished product this is a process I repeated for much of the interior, but boy is it time consuming! I listened to a lot of podcasts.
Carly had mentioned wanting some little shelves in the sleeping loft beside the bed. We had looked at some photos online and I liked the ‘honeycomb’ style, which I figured I could easily make myself. I got a bit of a production line going and made us each some as a surprise for her.
We each chose where we wanted our little shelves and I used four nails in each to hold them in place. I had tried buying some hidden picture mounts to secure them, but nails are cheap and did a much better job. I’m not much of a ‘trinket’ kind of guy, so it might take some time for mine to fill up, but I can think of one item that I cherish… my trusty tape measure.
Next up was some shelving. We had originally imagined this as being lots of little cubbies, of assorted sizes. However once I got started I realised that this could be some serious storage in the house and I wanted to get the most out of it. The first time I put up the ‘mega shelves’ I was a bit worried that they imposed into the space too much, but in reality I think it was just weird filling the house after it being an empty space for so long. I’m glad we made them as big as we did and even though the top shelf is only accessible with a ladder, it’s big enough to fit some bulky off-season items (winter jackets / sleeping bags) that you only need to access rarely.
The stairs had been a design challenge in the back of my mind for two years, ever since we decided upon the layout of the house. We knew we wanted them to double/triple as storage and a desk, without being too difficult to get up and down (especially for night pees!). We also had a fixed amount of room between the sofa and the loft. It was a fun project to design, trying to find the right balance of dimensions to make a useable staircase, desk and storage. In the end we even had enough room for a descent sized closet for hanging clothes.
Theory aside, I had never built a staircase before, but when has inexperience ever stopped me during this project! I was careful to chose materials that were not only attractive, but structurally sound. I ended up using a nice 3/4″ plywood and 2×2 spruce for the frame, all of which got sanded and treated so it looked great and would hold up to being stepped on. The last step climbing up to the sleeping loft is a little awkward, as the ceiling is just above, but there was no way around this. After a while this has become a non-issue and Carly suggested a grab bar for extra hold, which has worked out great.
Moving in to the kitchen I constructed a fridge shaped hole, with some more mega shelves above. It was also time to construct the 28 bottle wine rack, another Carly idea! A tiny house with a 28 bottle wine rack you ask? Well this is a good example of where we are designing the space around our needs. For years we have made our own wine and do so in batches, so at any given time we need to store a large amount of wine, or empty wine bottles waiting to be filled again. A lot of thought has gone in to this house (years of lightbulb moments just as you’re nodding off to sleep) and this approach to designing the house for us echos throughout the entire project. Overall I think it has made for a very efficient use of space, with very few compromises.
At this stage in the project I was feeling pretty confident about my construction skills and enjoying designing a custom interior. So why not design and build all of our cabinets, cupboards and sliding drawers from scratch?! I’m not going to let the fact that I haven’t so much as installed a drawer before stop me. How hard could it be?
This was a learning curve. I designed and built a simple frame for the cabinets first and then moved on to prototyping how I would construct the drawers.
When it came to installing them however, I realised just how fiddly they can be to get sliding smoothly. This was frustrating at first, but I soon realised that this required a whole new level of accuracy. Up until this point getting things to within 1/8 of an inch and ‘level-ish’ was fine, but after speaking to a carpenter friend, it became clear that things needed to be a whole lot closer close to ‘spot-on’.
I decided to take a break from the cabinets and switch projects. Brady was due for another work visit and I though that figuring out the sliding door for the toilet/shower room would be a nice weekend project.
Brady was a great help on this one, my original idea was overly complicated and grandiose and he brought me down to earth with a much simpler approach. I had already purchased a “barn door” sliding rail, so we decided to construct a simple frame using 2x4s, filled with rigid foam for some sound insulation and covered it with thin plywood. We then used cedar to trim it out and mounted a mirror I had been given on the kitchen side (the shower room is too small to get far enough away from a big mirror).
This worked out really well and the door takes up very little room, but when you need it it glides very smoothly to give some poop privacy. It was also funny being in there the first time with the door closed – all of a sudden the house had a room! I’m really happy with how it turned out. Thanks Brady.
Back to the drawers – I invested in a better level and came back with more patience. My prototype drawer had some issues, so after I had spoken to my carpenter friend I went through a complete redesign, once happy I got the production line going. I got a little better with each one, by the end I had it dialled.
They are made from 1/2″ plywood, sanded and oiled and then glued/stapled together. They have a ‘false front’, which we painted white and added some nice handles. They are also nice and deep with “full extension” sliders to make the most of the space.
We put quite a lot of thought into the drawers: how many, what they might contain and where they should go. We ended up with some serious storage.
The folding table was one of the first things we decided upon for our tiny house interior. We had done some research and knew that we wanted a small shelf to remain when the table was folded down. We did some experimentation in order to decide exactly where we wanted the table and how big it should be. Then I had to make it reality.
I had purchased a nice wooden desk off of Craigslist for the house we are currently living in and knowing it couldn’t come with into the tiny house as-is, I decided it made sense to re-purpose it. I cut it to size and re-finished it. Then I had to figure out how to support it. In my head I had designed a fancy folding support that was attached to the wall, however once installed it because apparent that just because something works in your head, doesn’t mean it will work in reality.
A couple of iterations later and I went with a simple hinged leg that folds up behind the table when it is collapsed. I also added a latch to ensure the leg wouldn’t collapse unexpectedly. I’m really happy with how the table turned out, it looks great, is sturdy and already we have been surprised by how nice it is having a small table in the space. Something we don’t have where we currently live.
My attention turned next to finishing the toilet/shower room. We needed a toilet! Our plan has always been to use a simple composting toilet system, which inside the house consists of a bucket (and adding sawdust after every use). I designed a simple box to house the bucket which we could install a regular toilet seat over. I also decided to include two bins – one for rubbish and one for the sawdust shavings.
The top that the toilet seat sits on is hinged for easy access and removal of the bucket and bins. I also added a catch to keep it open when removing the bucket. I took a lot of care sealing the wood to ensure it could be wiped clean for hygiene purposes.
I also made some finishing touches to the shower including some trim and a shelf.
Carly designed some shelves which I made reality using plywood. The overlapping boxes were interesting to figure out, but they look and work great.
Countertops! We knew we wanted solid wood that could be cut directly on to and narrowed this down to either one big slab of wood, or butchers block style (lots of small strips of wood glued together). We got a few quotes of around $2,000 for butchers block which was a bit out of budget, and we couldn’t find the right slab(s) to suit our needs. I was really set on using wood and considered making our own butchers block (I even sourced and priced out some nice maple) but it is a very labour intensive job and would of required some big new tools. Being so close to the end I backed away from another potentially sprawling project. Not knowing what to do, Carly and I were both stumped for weeks.
Eventually I found that I could order a hardwood butchers block made in the US through the Home Depot website. The price for the two counters we needed was around $600 and they had excellent reviews. It seemed too good to be true!…
I ordered two counters – one 4 feet and one 8 feet. The shorter one arrived within a week and we were over the moon with it. I applied a couple of coats of mineral oil, cut out a hold for the cooktop and the “cook nook” was complete! I immediately made a cuppa to take it for a test drive.
So what about the second counter you ask? Well that one I didn’t get for another six weeks. A long 2-month ordeal short, the longer counter was too heavy to be sent by courier (unlike the shorter one) so it was sent freight. However Home Depot didn’t tell me any of this, in fact they still quoted 3-9 days delivery even after hours of phone calls to their customer service. In the end I just had to sit and wait. The worst part was I had nothing else to do, this was the last piece of the puzzle.
I would have been fine with a long wait had I known in advance, but throughout this whole process I was stunned at how incompetent Home Depot came across at every interaction. I couldn’t get a straight answer from anyone, no-one seemed to know what they were doing and no-one did what they said they would do. I have been to Home Depot countless times during the build and for items they hold in stock they are very convenient. I also find most of their staff on the floor to be very friendly and helpful. However I will never order anything through them again.
O.K., rant over.
While the project was on pause I figured I may as well use it as a glorified office (I don’t have a desk anymore after all!). This was a nice treat for me, because I like my work space to be ‘just so’ and this was the first office I had designed and built. No matter what happens, from now on I will always have a nice office (with a built-in bedroom, kitchen, toilet and shower!). In fact this is where I write this post from.
When the second counter finally arrived I was ready for it. It got oiled and installed in no time. With the sink installed too we had a functioning kitchen… inside a functioning house!
Our plan was to live in the house for a while in order to test it out and iron out any kinks. We have been sleeping in it for two and a half weeks now and we don’t want to leave! It’s been a truly special feeling getting to know the space that we have spent years working on. I especially enjoy waking up and the first things I see through my sleepy eyes are the beautiful details that I slaved over. We couldn’t be happier with how the house turned out. I am also looking forward to moving on with my life… it’s been a long haul.
Earlier I mentioned designing the house for us and reducing compromises, which has been a challenge in such a small space, but by focusing on our wants and needs we have managed to make a space that we really enjoy being in. I get a kick out of how surprised some visitors are at how open and light the house is, how much storage we have and how big the kitchen is (it’s bigger than where we currently live). This was not by chance, it has been years of thought and literally thousands of decisions. Many times that has been overwhelming, but I’m so glad we stuck with it and overcame the hardships. One of the most satisfying things so far is people pointing out the little details we have added, or something I slaved at for hours thinking no one would ever notice. That’s feedback I rarely, if ever get from my work in the digital world. People have a much better appreciation for physical objects that they can understand, touch and manipulate.
On a personal note, if you have read this blog before you know how hard I have found this project. Including planning, it’s been three years years from start to finish. Through stubbornness and Carly’s support I have a whole new appreciation for what exactly goes in to designing and building ‘things’ and the amount of knowledge required to build an entire house. If I could go back in a time machine and tell past Joe just how tough this project would be, I wonder if he would have gone ahead and built one, would buying have been an attractive option? In all honesty though, I’m glad I did it the hard way (really, that’s the only way I know how). As the project has come to a close and I have had a chance to reflect, I have realised that I really enjoy designing and making ‘things’. This is actually something I talked about in my first post on tiny houses, but until now had almost been forgotten amongst the toil. I now have a huge foundation of knowledge and experience which makes me much more confident about figuring out how things work, how to approach problems and how perhaps things could be done differently… or better. I feel like I have unlocked a part of my brain that I always knew was there, but never fully exercised. It sounds silly, but all of a sudden I have a new-found appreciation for what engineers and designers, like my Dad, actually… ‘do’. I’m not exactly sure where I’m going to go from here, but I am definitely going to continue to design and make ‘stuff’. I want to try to strengthen this previously under-utilised muscle.
We are now looking for a piece of property to rent that we can move the house on to. We hope to be in before the weather turns too foul, but after the build taking so long we don’t want to rush this last step and we are waiting for the right place to come along. We are both very excited to set the house up properly and for it to finally become our home. I’ll let you know.