The Small Space Directory – tiny houses, mobile studios, and small spaces

The tiny house world is scattered, and sometimes it’s difficult to get a good sense of how many of us there are, where we are, and the different technologies we’re using in our homes and studios (art, office, etc). This community-owned directory is here to change that: it’s free and viewable by anyone. Connect with others by viewing the directory here (http://bit.ly/1TruEOo) and add your own tiny home project via the form below.

NOTE: THIS DIRECTORY IS ONLY FOR PROJECTS THAT HAVE BEGUN (OR COMPLETED) PHYSICAL BUILDING OF THE HOUSE OR STUDIO. If you’re looking to start a build, for builders, or for other tiny house enthusiasts, there’s a great listing of others over at tinyhousemap.com.

WHY THIS DIRECTORY?

For the last three years we’ve been answering questions from people wanting to find other tiny house or small space owners to learn about the technologies they use in their spaces and to find similarly – minded folks in a certain region.  While the tiny house map exists and is a great resource, it doesn’t have much information regarding the technologies used in small space projects. It’s also hard to query specific information about a project – for instance, show me all tiny houses that are on wheels and are less than 20 feet.  Or show me all tiny houses in California with off-grid water systems. This tiny house directory will feed an online interactive map which you will be able to query by project attribute: location, technology, design features, number of inhabitants, art studio, on foundation or on wheels, etc.

Because this directory is an open data project it also means any of you creative types will be able to use this data to create your own apps or maps for your site.  For instance, perhaps you take the data and create a map for your region or state or for your meetup group – symbolizing it however you’d like – there are many possibilities and the more folks who contribute to the directory the better data we all will have access to.

So, if you have a tiny house or small studio already (or are currently building one) – on a foundation or on a trailer – please fill out the directory form and come back in a few weeks to check out the map!

Any questions about this project or data, please email us at support@boneyardstudios.org.

Link to directory: https://docs.google.com/forms/d/1Mf2hrUSf6ymHEaZrzXjYLkE-QKY1_fUocki2hgbYjdE/viewform

NOTE: this is a community resource and open data project meaning anyone will be able to see the data and use it, so please only fill out information about your project that you feel comfortable sharing.

Join us (and our awesome panel) for ‘Small is Beautiful’ next Tuesday, 7/21

A few weeks ago, we announced the DC premiere of Small is Beautiful: A Tiny House Documentary, hosted by Boneyard Studios at Woolly Mammoth Theatre. Just a reminder—it’s only one week away, and tickets are still available! We also promised a post-film Q&A with the DC area’s leading tiny house builders and owners, and are excited to announce our panel—

Moderated by Mary Fitch, AICP, Hon. AIA;  Executive Director of the American Institute of Architects DC
Robin Hayes; 
Tiny house builder and owner of Build Tiny
Amanda Stokes; Tiny house owner
Lee Pera; Tiny house owner and founder of Boneyard Studios
Jay Austin; Tiny house owner and co-founder of Boneyard Studios

So bring your questions, bring your loved ones, and bring your ticket—$15 now, $20 at the door (like all Boneyard Studios events, this one’s not-for-profit, and so we’re relying on your support to help us pay the space-and-screening bills). Can’t make it but still want to help us put on more events like this in the future? There’s a spot for donations, too.

WHEN: Tuesday, July 21, 2015, 8PM
WHERE: Woolly Mammoth Theatre (bike racks out front, street parking available, and just a short walk from any Metro line)

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Here’s one more look at the Small is Beautiful trailer:


Small is Beautiful is a revealing look into the tiny house movement, a grass roots response to the housing affordability crisis that traps people from across the developed world. In Portland, Oregon, we meet four characters, each of whom are at various stages of building and living in their own tiny homes. Ben is a 20-something single guy with an inheritance to spend and a design he drew, but an ambitious timeline and no building experience. Nikki and Mitchell are a young couple who, along with their two dogs, dream of bucking the strereotypical life style of buying a big house and spending the rest of their lives trying to pay it off. Karen, 50, has loved living in her tiny house for two years yet still struggles with the lack of permanency that comes with living in a house on wheels. Ultimately this story proves that it’s not what’s inside the walls of a tiny house that counts, but rather it is the strong community of like-minded people who support each other as they dare to be different. Runtime: 68 minutes.

FILM SCREENING: ‘Small is Beautiful’ and Boneyard Studios Q&A at Woolly Mammoth Theatre

We’re excited to announce DC’s first showing of Small is Beautiful, Jeremy Beasley’s new tiny house documentary. Join us on Tuesday, July 21st at 8PM at Woolly Mammoth theatre for a wonderful exploration of the physical and emotional challenges and rewards of building tiny, told through the eyes of four do-it-yourselfers building and living small in Portland, Oregon. And after the film, we and a few other tiny house enthusiasts and builders will host a Q&A about the tiny house movement and our own experiences building tiny houses, and a tiny house community, here in Washington, DC.

Seating is limited, and while our community events are usually free, for this we have to charge to cover the costs of rental space, screening licenses, and A/V support (of course, donations to keep these events going are always appreciated even if you can’t make it). And thanks to Woolly Mammoth for their support and helping us screen this film.  Go grab your ticket here! 

Small house solar: full details of the Matchbox system

Solar technology is awesome, but it’s also awesomely confusing. Between batteries and panels and chargers and inverters and controllers and more, figuring out a working solar system is a daunting task, especially when space is at a premium. A few weeks back, the Matchbox got solar, and so—in the hopes it’ll help someone looking to unplug a small house of their own—here’s the full scoop on my working solar set-up.

To begin, this system was not cheap. Affordability was always a secondary concern for the Matchbox (trumped by reliability and livability), so at $8,400, these components may be out of the price range of some. It can be had for cheaper—indeed, I spent a little extra to order all the parts together, and a lot extra on a pre-wired FlexPower unit (which contains the charger, inverter, controller, and more), rather than risk death by electric trying to get those individual components wired together.

It also wasn’t easy. Even with a pre-wired unit, the installation was way complicated. I was fortunate to get a ton of help from a great and electrically-inclined friend, but getting everything hooked up took the two of us about four full days. For a novice, a professional installer may be necessary—and come at a higher price. (Despite the struggle, learning the ins and outs of the system was a ton of fun, so perhaps this would be a good week-long project for a persistent DIYer.)

Not cheap, not easy, but it does work. Well. Or at least, sort of. I’ve been running the system for a few weeks now and it does just great—even with my AC refrigerator and non-LED lighting, it drains less than 15% of the battery bank during an average day of use, and that’s without recharging. The thing is, the Matchbox currently rests under a pretty thick tree canopy, blocking all but the most indirect sun from touching the four panels on the roof. As such, it’s not really recharging—and won’t be able to until it moves to sunnier pastures—but once it can charge up, it should top the battery bank off fairly quickly.

So, those are the caveats. These are the details.

  1. The panels: 4 SolarWorld SunModule 315W/24V monocrystalline panelsYour basic 315W panels. The Matchbox roof (and most other roughly 8′ x 20′ flat or slightly pitched roofs) can fit four, for a total 1.3kW array.
  2. The batteries: 4 Trojan Reliant L16-AGM 6V 370AH sealed batteries ($499 each, $1,996 total). Safe for small interiors, compact, and capable of storing 1,480 amp-hours (roughly 9kWh). Note that these particular batteries are pending recall for a non-urgent sealing issue, so perhaps the Trojan Reliant’s aren’t, well, all that reliant.
  3. The unit: FlexPower ONE VFX3524 pre-wired system, including AC/DC boxes, inverter/charger, FLEXmax charge controller, and MATE3 hub ($4,035 total). Perhaps overkill for such a small home, but magic nonetheless. Capable of charging batteries from the sun, inverting DC to AC and AC to DC, charging batteries from a hook-up or generator, and keeping everything running and monitored and safe.
  4. The odds and ends: connector cables (2), connector key (1), combiner box (1), locknuts (2), breakers (2), rails (4), end-clamps (2) and mid-clamps (1), l-foots (2), battery connectors (3), and battery cables (1), all totaling $507. Another $520 for Massachusetts-to-DC shipping, and about $100 in tools (crimpers, wire strippers) and parts (wire, ring connectors) from the hardware store.

I got all this from the folks up at altE in Boxborough, MA, who were great in helping me figure out what I needed. They weren’t the cheapest, and this is in no way a paid referral, but feel free to use my sales order (SO-127929) as a starting point if it helps—or, y’know, comparing prices of the above links across the internet for the best deal.

So, those are the parts, but in such a small house, where do they go? Well the panels, obviously, go on the roof, and take up most of the seating space up there (though this amazingly entertaining strength-testing video suggests they’re more than sturdy enough to sit on). The FlexPower unit goes where the electric fireplace used to go, taking up about 33″ x 20″ of wall space and jutting out about 13″ from its mounting plate. The batteries sit on the floor underneath, occupying about four square feet in the corner. And the circuit breakers go in a back bumpout, though these could easily be installed right next to the FlexPower unit. Altogether, the interior solar bits and pieces take up about as much space as a small corner desk might (a really small corner desk).

It’s worth noting that the batteries and inverter/charger will give off heat, so best to keep them away from combustibles and be mindful of that heat during the warmer months. They’re also heavy. The main unit weighs 110 pounds, and each battery about 115, so assuming those are all tucked away in one corner of the house, that’s about 600 pounds shoved in one corner of a small, trailer-supported house. Considering another 200 pounds for the four panels (50 pounds each), a solar system of this size will add nearly 800 pounds to a tiny house—not an issue for those built on 14,000 GVWR trailers, but definitely a concern for a single-axle model.

And, finally, your mileage wattage may vary. The Matchbox system is a good system for the Matchbox—or at least, it’s been doing okay so far—but solar is a big investment. Let me know if you have questions in the comments below, and I’ll let you know how the system does as we move into the hotter (and then colder) months, but whatever you do, get a second opinion before dropping thousands of dollars on a tiny house solar system.

More pictures to come, but for now here's another look at the unit and batteries.

More pictures to come, but for now here’s another look at the unit and batteries.

A house that runs on rainbows and sunshine

Three years ago, I dreamed of building a house—something small, something simple, something sustainable. And with the help of a great many friends and mentors and supporters and the long, endlessly rewarding patience of time, that dream became a house and that house became a home. And this week, that home became an ecosystem. This week, the Matchbox unplugged.

The Matchbox was never so much a dream as it was a question: Can one find happiness in a simple life of simple limits? Can one live a life truly in harmony with her planet? Can one survive—and not just survive, but willfully thrive—with nothing but the sun and the rain and the earth below? It may be a long, trying journey to get there, but I think the answer is yes.

For years now, the Matchbox has been “nearly” off-grid, self-sufficient in water and waste but still dependent on a constant source of city-supplied electricity. Until now. Over the past few weeks I’ve been working under the absolutely wonderful tutelage of Brad, friend of Boneyard Studios, to wire and install a state-of-the-art solar kit, and this past Sunday it went live. The custom kit features a 1,200-watt, four-panel array, four hefty batteries totaling 290 amp-hours, and an absolute beauty of a control center with an AC/DC inverter, charger, and communications hub. After running the house for three days under the thick tree canopy of the Matchbox’s (temporary) backyard, the batteries are still about two-thirds full, suggesting the array won’t have any trouble keeping up when moved into more direct sunlight.

Coupled with the existing rain catchment system, greywater management, composting toilet, and fledgling garden, the Matchbox is—finally and proudly—a carbon-zero home, DC’s first and only fully off-grid small house. With rainbows come drinking water and with sunshine comes electricity and with greywater and compost comes fresh vegetables from the garden; and with all the above comes happiness and a whole lot of harmony with the world around us.

Four 70-amp 6V batteries and a lovely FlexWare system. (Left to right:) Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. (Top:) Ms. March.

Four 70-amp 6V batteries and a lovely FlexWare system. (Left to right:) Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy. (Top:) Ms. March.

Are tiny houses legal? Yes.

Perhaps the biggest barrier to smaller living is the misconception that tiny houses are illegal. They’re not. Here’s why.

But first, a disclaimer on what I am and what I am not. I am an individual who lives (yes, full-time), in a tiny house in the District of Columbia. I am someone who has spent more time than I’d ever hoped trudging through DC zoning and planning and coding regulations. I am someone employed by the US Department of Housing & Urban Development who spends a lot of hours each day talking to—and learning from—housing lawyers and the very people who set federal housing policy. I have a penchant for taking risks, an insatiable urge to disrupt stale systems, and a graduate degree in government and public policy.

Here’s what I am not. I am not a lawyer, urban planner, or zoning expert. I am not someone who knows all that much about these regulations outside of DC (though I’ve picked up a little). I am not someone who can speak to tiny houses affixed to foundations, and I am not someone to be trusted exclusively and unquestioningly before you spend tens of thousands of dollars building or buying a small house and dropping it onto a piece of land. That’s important.

But I am somebody who has spoken to thousands of people about living in tiny houses, and hundreds of people earnestly looking to take that leap, and too often I see someone who reconsiders their dream at the mention of legal grey area. Too often I see journalists cover the movement or Boneyard Studios or my little house and mistakenly mention that it’s “illegal” for someone to live in a small house. In my less informed days, I’m sure I’ve perpetuated this myth myself. But it’s not, and it’s a mistruth that’s damaging to what we strive for. It’s a myth that needs to be corrected. So let’s correct it.

[ 1 ] WHAT WHEELS DO

The “tiny houses are illegal” story always starts the same way, and the first part is totally true. The District of Columbia and most other American (and international) cities follow international residential building and plumbing codes, designed in theory to make homes “safe.” They definitely do—mandated maximum spans for rafters, minimum widths for studs, and other key standards to keep homes from caving in—but often the codes overreach, focusing more on comfort than caution. For instance, a code-compliant sink must be plumbed to receive both cold and hot water, even though hot water is an electricity-intensive convenience that (unless it’s at a skin-scalding 140 degrees) can’t actually kill germs. Rooms have a required number of “convenience outlets,” designed to keep residents from overloading power strips (though a surge protector or working circuit breaker would do just fine), without much consideration of those who just don’t have that many things to plug in.

Off-grid systems are unacceptable according to plumbing code: a house must be hooked up to city water, even if rain catchment is sufficient, and a house must have a toilet capable of flushing waste into the Potomac River, even if the owner has found a way to safely manage waste onsite. In some sustainability-minded foundation-built houses, I’ve seen bathrooms with two toilets: a plumbed one to meet code, and a composting one to actually use. Tiny houses don’t have this luxury of space. There’s more: minimum bedroom ceiling heights (incompatible with tiny house lofts), a minimum square footage for the bedroom and kitchen and living room. Small spaces inherently can’t meet code, and because code is enforceable by the city, a foundation-built house can be condemned and bulldozed (and its owner fined and imprisoned) for repeatedly failing to meet the law of the land, or perhaps the law of the landed.

And so, we put them on wheels. And just like that, international and national and local building and plumbing codes don’t apply. The house becomes a vehicle, and though the houses are largely built to code (and often, because these houses will travel on highways at sixty miles per hour, are built above code), some of the insurmountable elements are rejected.

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The utility trailer the Matchbox was built on.

[ 2 ] WHAT WHEELS DO NOT DO

And here’s where the story gets a little muddled. Tiny house on wheels are considered travel trailers, and fall under the jurisdiction of the Department of Motor Vehicles. The DMV has no idea what to do with these, but agrees it’s probably a good idea to get them tagged and registered (in DC they would also have to be taken to the DMV for inspection every other year, but by using power-of-attorney allowances, a utility trailer anywhere in the country can be registered in Maine and exempted from inspection). And once that’s taken care of, the tiny house is completely, 100%, absolutely legal. In nearly every jurisdiction in the United States, the owner of a house-looking thing on a utility trailer is entitled to the same parking rights as any other non-house-looking thing on a utility trailer or vehicle. They can be parked on private property (with permission to park there, obviously) and parked on the street (as long as they’re attached to a lead vehicle and meet local parking rules) and driven on the road (as long as they’re no wider than 8’6″ and no taller than 13’6″ and no longer than about 40′ and driven by someone with a commercial driver’s license if the trailer has more than a 10,000-pound gross vehicle weight rating).

But, at the end of the day, a vehicle is not a house. Unless the tiny house is RVIA-certified or large enough to meet manufactured housing code, it’s more or less considered a car. Cars are not entitled to some things: namely a certificate of occupancy and the ability to declare a car as a primary residence. A tiny house parked on private land can have an address—indeed, our old Boneyard Studios lot was granted one—but the address is actually for the land itself, not the house. The house is not a house and the home is not a home, and you can’t put the address on your license, and your house isn’t eligible for all the great tax breaks and legal recognition the rest of the landed gentry enjoys. And this, finally, is where the myth of “illegal” tiny houses comes from. It’s not that you can’t live there, even full-time; you just can’t legally declare that your “full-time” “primary” “residence.”

And in that sense, living in a tiny house is a little like living with a same-sex partner in the era between the repeal of anti-sodomy laws (at least among the more civilized states that have repealed them) and the recognition of same-sex marriage as a legal bond subject to the same legal benefits (things like health insurance and the right to sit by the bedside of a dying spouse) as everyone else. Think 2006. No one is legally preventing you from living where you want to live (though nasty comments, gross misunderstanding, and bureaucrats not comprehending their own laws might persist), but no one is giving you the benefits your living situation really deserves, either. Your negative rights are protected, but your positive rights haven’t (yet) been granted.

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Lee’s Pera House, toured by the Deputy Mayor in 2014.

[ 3 ] IF YOU BUILD IT, THEY WON’T COME

So, what do cities have to say? Not much. Tiny houses have sprouted up across the United States, and as long as they’re on wheels there haven’t really been run-ins with city officials. I know of a case or two where an individual has been asked to move their house because it “doesn’t comply” with city laws, but the owners of those homes didn’t seem to push the issue; likely, the city was exercising authority it didn’t really have.

There’s an important distinction to make between cities that criminalize homelessness and those that don’t. A city that criminalizes homelessness is one that can legally fine an individual for loitering or sleeping in public—when a person has no place to go, they’re essentially being prosecuted for existing at all. In some municipalities, sleeping in a vehicle on a public street is illegal, but on private property, it’s just camping.

Here in the District, we’ve had an interesting relationship with city officials. They’ve been overwhelmingly awesome: the Deputy Mayor and her staff came for a tour of Boneyard Studios to explore tiny houses as a potential solution to chronic homelessness, and our friends in the Office of Planning and the Department of Housing & Community Development have offered us advice, support, and even land for a new community (the last of which we didn’t accept for other reasons). Meanwhile, the Department of Consumer & Regulatory Affairs has occasionally overstepped its authority, imposing conditions on our old lot that weren’t supported by law. And the Zoning Commission, charged with coordinating a fair and transparent rewrite of DC’s archaic zoning, managed to slip in an unsolicited provision banning “camping” in tiny-house-like structures in alleyways. The good news is that the ban is vague and both practically and (I’m told) legally unenforceable, and at the moment neither of the Boneyard Studios houses are in alleyways. I’m also not camping in my house; I’m living there full-time. Just not Full-Time.

If you build it, they won’t come. I’ve been in the Matchbox for three years, and I’ve never received so much as a warning letter. No fiscally-responsible city is going to send an officer to stake out your tiny house and record your comings and goings for fourteen days, or 185 days, or whatever threshold your municipality sets for “camping” or “primary residence.” No marshal is going to knock on your door and tell you to leave your tiny house on wheels any more than one would knock on your car window and tell you to leave the car you’ve parked in your driveway. Assuming you’re not doing anything else wrong, like improperly disposing of waste or otherwise endangering those around you, you’re safe.

Cities and towns typically aren’t to blame: journalists are. Take a recent piece about tiny houses in DC:

There’s nothing in the city’s current zoning regulations related to “tiny houses,” Edward Giefer, spokesman for the D.C. Office of Planning, wrote in an email. But structures that would qualify as “accessory dwelling units” — like living in a house-on-wheels behind a friend’s rowhouse — are not permitted in the city.

— Whitney Pipkin, Elevation DC

Accessory dwelling units—which I haven’t gotten into because this is already wordy and complex enough—are usually about four hundred square feet, built on a foundation, and accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Tiny houses on wheels are not accessory dwelling units, because tiny houses on wheels are not (usually) four hundred square feet, are not built on foundations, and (sometimes) don’t accompany a larger house that exists on the property. Our friend Ed tells Whitney that the city doesn’t have a stance on tiny houses, but notes that structures that would qualify as accessory dwelling units are not permitted, and Whitney just squishes the two together. This happens a lot—it’s not just Whitney—and it’s an honest but damaging mistake.

[ 4 ] TL;DR

And that’s all there is to it. With a few caveats, tiny houses on wheels are perfectly legal. They’re built on wheels to escape unnecessary code requirements, and thereby escape even the peskiest zoning official. By existing in the vehicle realm, though, they forfeit some of the great advantages of being a homeowner: tax benefits, homeowner’s insurance, full recognition by the city. They may not call you a Homeowner, but hey, you are a “homeowner.”

The city won’t give you a problem, and if it does, just remind its enforcers that if they don’t consider your house a home, that means you’re probably considered homeless and should probably go cash in on some of the pricey homelessness subsidies you haven’t been using. Or question their legal grounds, seek some pro bono help, and fight for your rights. But more than likely, you’ll never need to. Because tiny houses are legal.

So cities, thanks for your continued support.
Members of the media, please fact-check.
And people, let’s get building.

Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Tony working on the Matchbox, 2012.

Like everything at Boneyard Studios, this information is made freely available under a Creative Commons license. Feel free to share, remix, and repost as you’d like (that’s what it’s here for!).

Adventures in insuring a tiny house (or trying to)

This is not an authoritative post on how to insure a (non-RV-certified) tiny house, because I am not an authoritative expert on how to insure a tiny house. This is just the story of one very long call to one very big insurance company to try to do so.

As a preface: the Matchbox got solar power this spring! Or at least, it got solar batteries and solar panels and a solar inverter currently stashed by the fireplace and not yet installed (more on that soon). Those were some pricey bits, and coupled with my bicycle, camera gear, odds and ends, and the house it’s all squeezed into, I thought it might be time to get some insurance on all my worldly possessions.

It seems our good friends on the West Coast have figured that all out, but here in DC my options for tiny-house-specific insurance were limited. So, I called GEICO. They’ve been insuring my scooter for years, and it seemed like a good place to start.

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The automated menu played, and for some reason I thought renter’s insurance was the most appropriate path to follow. Which is weird, ’cause I’m not a renter, nor do I have a place that even qualifies as a legal home. Still, I pressed 4.

A woman picked up, and she asked me where I was located and what I’d like insured. “Well,” I said, “I’m over in Ivy City in Northeast DC, and I’d like my house insured.”

“Cool; we can do that. And you rent this house?”

“No.”

“Oh, do you own it?”

“Yes, I own it.”

She paused. “Okay, then let’s get you over to someone who can talk to you about homeowner’s insurance.”

“Well, the thing is,” I interjected, “it’s not technically considered a home. It’s, like, a trailer. A little house built on a utility trailer.”

She punched a few keys and asked a few more questions and then found a solution: GEICO had a motor home insurance division. She transferred me over, and wished me luck.

I found no luck. After explaining my situation to the man who works with motor homes, it became clear GEICO’s definition of motor home was something self-propelled. I was bumped to the other side of the office, manufactured housing, and—as expected—told I didn’t belong there either: anything under 320 square feet wasn’t considered manufactured housing.

Like a hot potato no one wanted to be stuck with, I was sent to auto insurance. The house was on a trailer, I was told, so the trailer and it’s live load could be insured, right?

Wrong. The folks at auto insurance couldn’t insure anything that couldn’t move itself, unless it was longer than 30′ and used for long-haul trucking. The Matchbox was not built for long-haul trucking. Exasperated, I asked the friendly woman on the other end of the line what I should do. How do I just, like, insure a thing based on its dollar value?

Personal property insurance, I was told. Another transfer, another hold, another five minutes spent explaining what exactly the personal property was, and another five minutes being told that, for something that could be physically entered, personal property insurance wouldn’t cover me. Try renter’s insurance, they said.

And so, an hour later, I was back where I started: renter’s insurance. Full circle. “Okay,” I said, “here’s the deal. I am not a renter, and I do not have a legally-certified house. I have this thing that is in someone else’s backyard and I want that thing and its things within insured. Can you please, pretty please, help me?”

There was a solution (finally!). All I had to do was sign up as a renter for the yard the Matchbox was in, using the address of the physical foundation-built house on the property. It was a good short-term fix, but the Matchbox won’t be there long, and it’s next spot may very well not have a permanent home and friendly homeowner from which to rent (or borrow!) space.

We were at an impasse. I asked the representative what sort of proof of rent was needed. She said nothing. I asked her what sort of proof of address was needed. She said nothing. She said GEICO didn’t really worry about those things, and if I wanted to put down a partner’s or a friend’s or a coworker’s or an acquaintance’s house, that’d be just fine—and 100% of the $500-deductible, $25,000 coverage could extend offsite (at least in DC). And that, an hour and a half after embarking on this little insurance journey, is what I did.

Except, it’s a half-measure. The rental insurance will cover the solar equipment and the bicycle and the electronics and the stovetops and everything else in the house (or that I take outside of the house to anywhere in the world), along with liability if anyone injures themselves inside it, but not the house itself. I was told what’s part of the house is determined by the “fall rule”—if the house were to tip over, whatever wouldn’t fall down was part of the house. In a space built to travel on the road and not have things fall down, that’s not necessarily good. But at $250 per year, getting some stuff inside insured is, well, maybe kinda-sorta worth it.

Is the journey over? No. That’s where you come in. Do you have tiny house insurance experience? Have you cracked the code of East Coast tiny house fiscal security? We have a comments section—let us know about your own adventures, and we’ll be sure to add any tips and tricks others have shared to this post.

But for now, I can sleep semi-soundly knowing that my small home is a small bit insured.

The Matchbox, accompanied by bike escort (photo courtesy offloadlabs.com)

UPDATE: It sounds like the folks from insuremytinyhome.com are making progress on providing tiny house insurance nationwide. Head over to get involved.

No one builds a house: what we dreamers and procrastinators need to learn

“Small is Beautiful” revolves around the anger, the frustration, the doubt, the defeat, the hopelessness, the heartbreak and the raw emotion that they all experience during their unique journeys. It would be unfair to call “Small is Beautiful” a cautionary tale but it shows that tiny house building isn’t the proverbial walk in the park that it’s often made out to be. It’s hard…One goes as far to state that: “I feel like I have a lot in common with Captain Ahab. It’s like me versus my tiny house — and I’m trying to build this thing and this thing is trying everything it can to not get built.”

I enjoyed reading this review of Jeremy Beasley’s new documentary Small is Beautiful as it realistically portrays the challenges of building a tiny house. As someone who has written openly about my struggles with building my house, I appreciate reading pieces that don’t simplify the process. As my house nears completion (finally…photos to come soon), I am reposting a piece I wrote last year for a tiny house magazine about the importance of project planning in the tiny house construction process – something I think many DIYers like myself are not as prepared for as we could be.

“No one “builds a house.’ They lay one brick again and again and again and the end result is a house. Procrastinators are great visionaries—they love to fantasize about the beautiful mansion they will one day have built—but what they need to be are gritty construction workers, who methodically lay one brick after the other, day after day, without giving up, until a house is built.”

Through the process of building my tiny house I have had to learn to transition from that visionary, big-picture person (who procrastinates and fantasizes way too much) to the gritty construction worker. It’s been a constant challenge, and I have resisted laying those bricks more times than I care to count, but I’ve also come to appreciate how structure and constraints in a creative process lead to better design and easier, more efficient work. Like many tiny house enthusiasts, the images online and the marketing that told me I could build a tiny house with just 14 tools and my time on the weekends sucked me in to thinking that because it’s a very small house, the effort and planning involved would be a smaller commitment as well. Not true at all. As a woman with no building experience prior to this project, I was expecting a physical challenge. What I wasn’t expecting was how mentally exhausting building can be with all the decision making involved and figuring out how those decisions impact one another (often through trial and error).

Planning the cabinets

Planning the cabinets

I’m a person who likes to research all options and loath making decisions for fear that I will have missed out on an option that would be better. But this is no way to build a house. Being a novice, I often wanted the right answer for a problem and was afraid of making a wrong decision. Even the times I was good at making decisions, I didn’t realize where in the process those decisions needed to be made or how they might impact other decisions or designs later in the build. This meant I had to redo or reconfigure various aspects of my build and spent way more time and money than I needed to simply because I hadn’t planned out the steps or made decisions in a timely manner.

Through seeing me struggle with this process of decision making and planning, the architect involved in my project decided to make a critical path project plan for constructing a tiny house. He developed this plan to use in our workshops, but I wish I had created one when I first began my project to plug in all the major decisions and tasks and have them shift around accordingly when things got off schedule. The creative side of me, and the person who wants the ability to change her mind hates sticking to a project plan, but I now see the utility of it and the benefit of taking the time before beginning a build to thoroughly plan out all the pieces. While it may seem laborious to do that when you just want to begin building, the time spent to organize and structure your process will save you much time and money later. You will have all the nails you need and won’t have to run to Home Depot as often (of course you will still forget things, just not as often!). When your door doesn’t arrive on time you will know what other tasks will be affected because you will have scheduled in your dependent tasks in your plan and those will change automatically when you change the delivery date for your door. You will have a much more efficient process which not only saves you time and money but frees up your mental energy to be applied elsewhere.

Planning the design of a tiny house

Planning the design of a tiny house

While I’m sure I will still wing many projects in my life, I have a new appreciation for structure and planning. They simplify a huge project like building a tiny house into manageable components so that a novice like me doesn’t get overwhelmed and give up out of frustration. My only regret is not having embraced structure and planning earlier in the process. It’s so easy to stay in the visioning and fantasizing stage because it’s fun and creative, but my hope is that future tiny house builders take the time at the beginning of your project to design a critical path project plan and then begin the work of laying those bricks as soon as possible so that your vision of a tiny house transforms to an actual structure in the most efficient way possible.

The worst tiny house move, ever.

A few months back, the Matchbox moved. It left its old, troubled home in Stronghold and rumbled on over to a quiet backyard in a quiet corner of Brookland. It was a tricky move—tight turns, a narrow alley, a crooked tree and a muddy ground and a bench so sunk into the soil that it took a bottlejack to pry it loose. It was tough, but after the three or four messy hours it took, I reflected on just how fun it had been.

Not this time. Last weekend the Matchbox moved again, and this time there are no cute photographs of a tiny house on the road, no video snippets of those rain chains blowing in the wind. There’s only the nightmare of this weekend scarred into my memory: twenty hours of towing for two miles of movement. And, I suppose, a few lessons learned.

First, some context: the Matchbox relocated from Brookland (where the wonderful landowners needed the yard back for a spring garden) to Ivy City (where a wonderful landowner has so generously offered to give it space for the time being). Our expert tiny house mover was out of town, and my attempts to find a reliable tower (or truck, for that matter) got me nowhere—tow companies didn’t want to tow the house, or didn’t have a pickup, or both. With no professionals available, I resorted to all I had at my disposal: a Ford F150 rental from Uhaul.

I have no experience towing. This became immediately apparent as we got to work trying to pull the Matchbox out of the yard. First through the mud, tires spinning futilely, and then as we tried to haul the house around a tight corner, with an old tree leaning overhead, in reverse. Hours passed, progress was made, progress was lost. The hitch broke, the Matchbox’s siding got all scraped up, the back of the Ford sunk lower and lower into the ground. By late afternoon I’d all but given up. Despairing, I gave one of those tow companies a call—the one that had been most open to helping out, willing to come by if we were able to get it most of the way out.

I wouldn’t say it was most of the way out (not even close), but Darnell from Scott’s Towing [note: this isn’t a solicited review; they’re just awesome] swung on over around 5PM with a much-needed smile and positive attitude. He took over behind the wheel and—after about an hour of maneuvering—freed my little house from its little alley prison. We hit the road and I biked behind and twenty minutes later we were in Ivy City, my new home for the next few months. Or, almost. It was growing dark and there was still work to do: tearing down a picket fence, backing the house into a(nother) tight yard. We didn’t want to rush things, so we parked the house on the street for the night (legal in DC as long as it’s attached to a vehicle), then got to work the next morning with tons more back-and-forth before finally, sometime around 7PM, settling the Matchbox into the quiet backyard. A full weekend, sun-ups to sun-downs, moving one little house.

There’s lots more horror I’m skipping over: hours and hours of broken gutters and cracked concrete and trailer underbelly dragging over speed bumps and low curbs. A few angry drivers, an angry neighbor, and a tiny little paw-paw sprout left in critical condition after a run-in with a double-axle. Truck exhaust and human exhaustion, splintered wood and splintered hands. The scrapes and bruises will fade. But before the finer memories do, a few things I learned:

  1. Nobody puts baby in the corner. Don’t squeeze a tiny house somewhere it won’t fit. Just don’t. Backing up will always be more difficult than pulling in, and just because you’ve managed to get something pushed into the deepest corner of a narrow alley doesn’t mean you’ll be able to get it out. There were a few terrifying moments this weekend where I truly believed my house would never be able to make it out in one piece, and it’d be a terrible shame to put a house on wheels only to immobilize it through sheer, stubborn geometry.
  2. An F-150 is, like, totally okay but totally not great. It’s tricky to find a good truck to use in the urban East, but in a pinch an F-150 is, well, just fine. The Matchbox is a bit of a larger tiny house (mostly due to the flat roof and cantilevered porch), but the little(ish) Ford did just fine on the road, at least as far as braking and climbing little(ish) hills is concerned. Of course, a tiny house hauler would be far better fitted with something more powerful: the torque and the weight of the truck left much to be desired (and probably made the move much more difficult). But, y’know, desperate times …
  3. All good on the plaster front. A lot of people have had concerns about the Matchbox’s earthen plaster walls (and the drywall underneath). Will it crack? they ask. Maybe one day, but not yet. In the past few months my house has gone through a pair of two-mile moves, with lots of bumping and dropping down curbs and potholes, and though four miles isn’t exactly a long haul, so far the walls haven’t shown even the slightest hint of cracking.
  4. People are awesome. Two sets of wonderful host families, two sets of spectacular volunteer moving crews. Big thanks to Raquel, Janet, Jenny, and their families for giving the Matchbox a home during our time as a tiny house community-in-exile, and tons of appreciation to Robin, Lee, Erum, Molly, Lauren, Alix, Josh, Micah, Bao, and Darnell(!) for hours of grueling, muddy, miserable work helping the Matchbox move.

Of course, this is all just temporary. In a few months the Matchbox will move again, and this time (we hope) to a much more long-term home. More on that soon—including a really exciting upgrade to the (nearly off-grid) house—and lots more lessons from our time in transit. Looking to talk tiny houses in the meantime? Come join us for a movie and beer at Bardo next Friday!

The Matchbox moving in to Brookland back in January.

The Matchbox moving into Brookland back in January.