Teeny Tiny Little Homes

“Tiny houses” are growing in popularity but one tiny cost never comes up: time.

I lived in about 90 square feet (albeit with a really nice “porch”) for a lot of most summers when I was growing up.

We had a 27′, 1950 Richardson cabin cruiser then; the cabin was about 10′ long and the boat had a 9′ beam. There was plenty of room as long as we didn’t mind making beds up every night and making furniture again in the morning. The boat had an enclosed head, a galley with ice box, and a lot of stowage. Boat, RV, and tiny house designers have learned to find storage everywhere (there is always more space available in the hull of the boat than is accessible).

On a boat or “boondocking” (also called “dry camping”), the grocery store often is not reachable.

Modern boats of that size have showers and hot water in the enclosed head and their galleys have electric refrigerators. But we didn’t have a washer or dryer. We didn’t have a freezer. We didn’t have room for more than a couple days of food although we could always hide an extra couple of cans of Dinty Moore beef stew or corned beef for sandwiches.

Tiny HouseTiny houses are at a big crossroad, according to Plastics News.

“Twenty-five tiny houses are under construction in a blighted Detroit neighborhood by a non-profit group with a plan that could become a national model for helping people who earn about $12,000 a year become homeowners in seven years.”

There are plenty of other “tiny house” projects. Rufus reminded me that Vic de Zen of Royal Plastics had developed a line of tiny houses made from extruded PVC to be used quickly to replace houses after a hurricane trashed the Carribean islands.

“I really think that house shown in the article is pretty …. but I have waaaaaay too much stuff for 400 square feet!” Rufus said. “And I hope that continues to be the case.”

The even smaller 300-square foot Tudor-style tiny house in the article had electric and heating bills, in the middle of cold Michigan in February, will be $32 because that minimal space has “9 inches of insulation and very energy efficient windows.”

$32 for light and heat in February seems high. A human body and a lightbulb should be able to heat that little space with that much insulation. Put two human bodies in there and you’d have to open a window to cool the place.

The race is on for smaller and smaller spaces. One man lives in a 207-square-foot space with his wife and two kids. The Richardson had just 90-square-feet in the cabin.

Rufus has waaaaaay too much stuff but the real question isn’t what stuff you give up but what other cost?

There is no room for collections of books. “I miss them, but I have audiobooks on my phone and a Kindle,” Liz Arden said.

There isn’t any wall space for art. “I have a 40-inch flat screen on one wall and three other smaller screens and they all cycle through my etchings,” North Puffin’s mayor and general roue Beau Pinder said.

“There’s no storage for my shot glasses and salt-and-pepper shakers,” Alice said. OK, that’s a problem.

Stuff really isn’t the issue. Ms. Arden has decluttered her life, so the spare look needed in a tiny space works for her.

Time is the issue.

Larger spaces have room for a pantry or a workshop or a craftroom or a studio which means larger spaces have food for the week or the month and a pipe wrench for the bathroom leak and a sewing machine for the quilt and a stack of unfinished and partially finished canvases (eventually) for sale. Larger spaces have dedicated rooms for eating and sleeping and pooping.

Tiny spaces eat time to shop every day or two for food. The home repair job takes time to borrow or rent a pipe wrench. Sewing the quilt takes time to visit an “offsite” community center. The stack of canvases means a separate studio. The artist has to get dressed and travel there to create. The storage under the bed/sofa/lounge and the dining room table/work bench/desk/kitchen counter means tearing down one job to set up the next. The head lived under the starboard berth in our first boat giving new meaning to the idea that “you have to get up to go.”

The trade-off is a good one and one most tiny house owners make happily. After all, a space that does so many different things so well is a joy. There is no 10′ Christmas tree to drag out to the compost pile. And, bonus, since there is no room for wrapping paper, you don’t have to wrap Christmas presents.

The caveat? Time is the only non-renewable resource in the tiny house oeuvre.



No, not the “perfume.” That crap makes my nose curl.

SWMBO complained that I was obsessing over trailers last night.

“Yes,” I said. “It’s what I do.”

I’m an engineer, not just because I went to school for it but moreso because I need to drill and chew and drill and chew to get the facts, find the data, figure out how something works. I do that with the news that is a staple of this column. I do it daily with the weather.

Weather is important to me, and not just for concerts. I have an old roof in South Puffin and a lot of grass to mow in North Puffin. I drive a car with no top. It also lets us remind ourselves that the modeling that makes the one-day Inaccuweather forecasts so wrong so often uses the same modeling as climatologists have to forecast out one century.

And lately I’ve chewed around the ankles of two different kinds of trailer houses.

Some back story. I don’t like to camp — I live on an island and I summer right on the sixth Great Lake in the middle of tree-filled lawn, so I don’t need a field with trees and ponds and beaches — but I like not having to set up in motel after motel after motel when I travel. Traveling, for me, means visiting, sightseeing, touristy stuff, photography, and working on the road. Photography and working on the road means a fair dinkum load of gear.

I’d like to go someplace, set up “camp,” and just visit and look and live there for a few days, then move a couple hundred miles and do it again.

I also like to design and build things. Engineer, remember? I have long known that my design skills far exceed anyone who builds RVs for a living so my summer brainstorm is simple. Why not build the “camper” that purely, precisely, perfectly meets my travel needs. That becomes the Perfect Travel Trailer.

The PTT would be 6.5′ wide with a full length, four foot, power slide. That brings its towing width down to about that of the truck. Add a power mechanism to lower the top when it’s time to travel and the frontal area is suddenly no longer an air grabber. Inside the layout can be moderately conventional with about 300 square feet of floor space.

I’ve been working with composite materials all my life but I think I will build the shell in wood. It’s lighter and cheaper than steel and even than aluminum, both important, and can be pretty to look at. It’s also well within the grasp of my shop.

I had a layout ready, of course, when I stumbled upon this thirty-one foot long, 1977 Airstream Sovereign. It is pretty much gutted, ready for my PTT interior.

1977 Airstream Sovereign

The Airstream search was a fluke but (maybe) a good one. If I can buy a shell for around the cost of building it, it means not having to source a flatbed trailer, not having to build and finish the shell, and still getting a layout I like. And Airstreams are nice looking. I don’t see much downside, other than fitting the interior through the door, if the fuel economy works out.

“How will you fit your desk and chair and all the stuff you usually carry with you? And SWMBO?” Liz Arden asked.

Number 1 Daughter has the answer. She is gung ho as long as she gets to design it.

“Just hold your horses. Some of these things have to be run past mom also. This is a project.” SWMBO said.

“Yeah, I’m not a fan of the ‘project’ aspect either. And yes, it would be a project that needs to be completely laid out before anything should start,” Number 1 daughter said. “But mommy, my girlfriend and I would love to decorate something for you as a surprise. Wouldn’t you love that, mommy?”

<le sigh>

I am envisioning shabby chic here.

The desk’n’stuff will be done the same way I plan it for the PTT: I have in mind to do a Harper-bed (a Murphy bed concept but hinged for the space actually available) and have a shelf in the “bedroom” and a rolling desk chair that can come in there so I have a cave of my own.

Problem. Newbies typically keep their first camper for a year or two while they figure out what they really want.


I built a spreadsheet so I could obsess on my 4-1/2 camperish choices:

  • Rebuild an Airstream
  • Buy some kind of ready-to-go Travel Trailer
  • Build the perfect Travel Trailer
  • Buy a Bus, meaning a Class C or Class A RV.

I suppose I could even add “Build the Perfect Bus” to the list. Nah.

Lots of advantages for each.

  • I like like the perfect layout and the cachet of the big Airstream but at least a year and more likely two to finish and 11-12 mpg.
  • I like the instant gratification of buying something ready-to-go but 10-11 mpg.
  • I like like like perfect layout and the “I did it” gratification of the PTT but at least a year and more likely two to finish. Maybe as much as 15-16 mpg.
  • I like the cellar space of a Class A as well as the added square footage upstairs but any repairs require a truck facility, it gets lousy mileage, and requires serious insurance.
  • I like the ability to repair of the Class C in a local garage but I’d need 30′ LOA to fit stuff in.

Then I thought about my To Do list.

If I want to do any travel this year or next, I need to stop thinking and simply buy some kind of ready-to-go Travel Trailer that allows me to crawl in and sleep in a parking lot. Or do a quickie conversion of an enclosed cargo trailer.

“I guess realistically you could ‘camp’ in a relatively bare but roadworthy shell,” SWMBO said. Note the emphasis on the “you.” And she figures it would be primitive… “The mattress-on-the-floor bed isn’t bad but cooking would be limited unless you had a working generator so you could nuke and hot-plate and have a portable propane grill. Working fridge is a must and you really need that to be propane unless you can find a fridge that runs from an inverter and lots of batteries.”

It finally occurred to me that I can carry a lot of stuff like the pantry and freezer in the truck that I’d planned to store (somewhere) in the trailer. Modern 60-something quart freezers take 5-6 amps at 12VDC so the truck can power that easily underway and a pair of 50Ah deep cycle house batteries would easily carry the trailer and freezer load overnight. Run the genny only for boondocking.

“Be nice if the bathroom worked,” SWMBO muttered.

Most 50s-60s campers and boats (and 50s-60s-70s-80s-maybe-90s Airstreams) were primitive. The beds were little more than a foam pad on the floor and cooking was limited although my mom did pretty darned well on a propane camp stove on the little boat and a two-burner alcohol stove on the Richardson. Shore power takes care of A/C, frig, nuke, water heater, and heck even an electric cooktop if you want. I will definitely go all-electric in the PTT and probably would do so even in a little tag along.

The Streams
I found a pair of 25′ Airstreams over in New Hampshire.

The first is a 1970. 46 years old. The major systems — converter, water heater, furnace, toilet — appear to work. Road debris shattered the curved, right front window. There is no a/c. All the roof vents are caulked. The seller wasn’t sure about the operation of the gray water tank. Cosmetics are poor. The shell is dull, not bright, aluminum and the plastic parts are brittle. The tambour doors are troublesome. The awning needs replacement.

The second, a 1973, is only 43 years old. Its water heater and furnace appear to work and someone replaced the converter with an inverter but it still doesn’t make 110 from 12v to run the frig. A/C is icy. The shell is nice, bright, aluminum and the rivet joints are sound. The plastic parts are brittle. The tambour doors are troublesome.

On inspection, I found that all aluminum Airstreams have a boatload of steel in them. Every bit of it is on these was well and truly rusted.

These trailers also have a boatload of room and storage, partly because the beds are so small. The bathroom in the ’70 is bigger than mine down south.

I like the ’70 layout better.

All in all, it was a good trip because I didn’t buy either of them. In fact, it would now take special circumstances for me to by a 60s or 70s trailer. Simply too many pieces parts are about to fail after that many years. I reckon I’d be comfortable after a frame-off restoration.

Wot to do, wot to do.

The Not So PTT
Now we get to the challenging part.

7x14 Cargo Trailer cum Little House

I still like to design and build things. Engineer, remember?

I can fit SWMBO and everything I have to carry and even an RV-size washer-dryer into a cargo trailer. There’s room for the three-esses, room to cook, room to sleep, room to poke a ‘puter. There is not room to change your mind.

It’s about a three-week build.

Dixon makes a decent 7×14 Cargo Trailer with windows, torsion axles, and a real plywood floor somewhere down there in Georgia. I’ve been watching the ads up here, though, because I have stuff to haul down from here that would be a lot easier and safer to do with a cargo trailer. In fact, just Saturday, SWMBO saw a nice (used) frig and said, “Don’t you need a refrigerator with a bottom freezer down there?”

The only reason this project works is because I want a cargo trailer because I somehow keep hauling crap around. So. Room for cargo.

Cargo Space in the 7x14 Cargo Trailer

Note that I am well aware that either this $5-10,000 solution or the PTT will still take two years to build and cost me twice as much in twice as much gas as just driving, all so I can save $30-40/night on motel rooms and sleep in a Walmart parking lot for free!

Stay tuned.


Irksome Revelation

Longtime San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan retired last week. The 40-year-old forward was one of the oldest players on the court; he had spent his entire 19-year NBA career on the Spurs. “It wasn’t any fun any more,” he said.

You can be washed up as a basketball player at 30 or as a race car driver by 50 but the Stones and Chicago and show you can still be a rock star at 70.

Robert Lamm who may be the youngest of the old rockers is the old man of Chicago; he was born in 1944. There’s a long list. Mick Jagger was born in 1943. Paul McCartney, Al Jardine and Brian Wilson (born 1942). Eric Burdon, Paul Simon and Artie Garfunkel (born 1941). Ringo (born 1940). Dion (born 1939). And Leonard Cohen, forced by finances to go back on tour in 2008, was born in 1934.

Chuck Berry (born 1926) will perform his 207th show at Blueberry Hill in his native St. Louis on August 13.

“So do you think you should’ve been a rock star?” SWMBO asked. “With the drugs, sex, fame, fortune and all that annoying crap? Because you want to be on the road at 70?”

Jeez. Sex, fame, fortune. When you put it that way…

The full Social Security benefit age — the unofficial official retirement age in the U.S. — is 66 for people born in 1943-1954; it gradually rises to 67 for those born in 1960 or later.

Huh. I turn 67 this week so I did the “fun” test, too. First I had to list what I actually do. Alphabetically, of course.

  • Goof off
  • Invent stuff
  • Keep an Arts Council going
  • Photograph stuff
  • Renovate houses
  • Repair houses
  • Run a small business with engineering and IT clients
  • Stage concerts
  • Travel
  • Write other stuff

I like to be on stage but I never wanted to be a rock star. My hands aren’t big enough to hold a basketball but I never wanted to play ball. I was a race car driver and would still do it if someone would pay me but it’s tough to win as we get older.

Upside Down Camaro Races at LeMonsDangerous, too. Ove Andersson was a Swedish rally driver and the first head of Toyota’s F1 program who died at 70 in a vintage rally crash in South Africa. Bob Akin, journalist, television commentator, and champion sports car driver, was killed at 66 in a crash while testing a Nissan GTP for the Walter Mitty Challenge. J. D. McDuffie, 52, died in a crash at the Glen. Dale Earnhardt was almost 50 when he died in a crash at Daytona. Neil Bonnett died at 47 when he returned to racing after retiring.

Still, Morgan Shepherd took the wheel of the Number 52 Toyota at age 71 and became the oldest driver ever to start a race in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup series and became the second-oldest NASCAR Cup winner (after Harry Gant) when he won in Atlanta at the age of 51. He had made his Cup debut in 1970 but, even with no chance to grab a competitive ride, he still has no plans of slowing down.

OK, no slowing down, just changing direction.

  • I’ve already spent entirely too much time doing Windows 10 upgrades this month and didn’t have any fun. Some of my IT clients have already retired and I have now passed all but one of the rest to a really great shop in St Albans. Cool. IT Department will close this year.
  • I like goofing off. Keep.
  • Ditto inventing stuff, photographing stuff, renovating stuff, traveling, and writing other stuff. I should do more of that and improve the workflow so I have time to do #2.
  • I’m ready. If I never have to fix anything in an old house again, I’d have time to do #2 and #3.
  • I like the arts and enjoy the people but I’m not in North Puffin enough any more to do it justice.

Volunteer Chief Cook and Bottle Washer Needed
Longtime local arts service organization chair is stepping down. The search starts now. Inquire within.

“When I start hitting the wall or something, then maybe it’s time to get out,” Mr. Shepherd told Sports Illustrated in 2013.

Morgan Shepherd gives us all hope innit. Maybe we could race a little again, too?


I Haz a George!

Another in the continuing saga of South Puffin maintenance. When my dad died, he took with him the stove, television, stereo receiver, OTA Interweb modem, and pretty much anything else that plugged in.

Now I find out he forgot to fix the roof, too.

I found a few little leaks here when I got back here in November. Bought a lot of buckets. Started looking for ways to repair it and for an engineer to “bless” my drawings for a clerestory “bump up” that will solve all my problems: room for insulation above the roof deck, a better roofing material (steel panels), and more.

Old retired (Florida-licensed) engineers are surprisingly hard to find in the Keys and the couple of guys with shingles out are backed up until June.

Meanwhile, I have to patch the leaks. Happily, we didn’t get much rain over the winter and the buckets mostly worked, even when Rufus was here.

Like most “low slope” roofs, this house has a Built Up Roof.

“Please don’t make me crack open a browser to look stuff up in order to understand you!” Liz Arden said.

Built Up Roof LayersBuilt Up Roofing is (somewhat) self explanatory in that it is a waterproof covering made of layer after layer applied to the roof deck. Tradesmen refer to Built Up Roof membranes by the acronym “BUR” or, more commonly as “tar and gravel” roofs. The roofer applies alternating layers of bitumen (tar) and reinforcing fabrics such as tar paper or “felt” to create something that looks a lot like a single, gihugical (< ==technical term) shingle. In other words, the roofing crew mops down hot tar, lays tar paper in it, mops down more hot tar, lays tar paper in it, and so on. Once they have enough layers, they spread a couple inches of stone on top.

Built up or tar and gravel roofs have been in use for more than 100 years. Sometimes, the base sheet is mechanically fastened. Better is when they are fully adhered, meaning the first layer of tar “glues” the felt directly to the roof deck or insulation.

I planned to simply add a layer of bitumen to the top layer of felt so I had to get move the stone off.

Tax Day: I finished clearing all the stone and swept everywhere I will patch. I also cleared and swept an area down over the overhang but couldn’t get down into the stone embedded in that top layer of tar.

This is going to be harder than I thought.

I got plenty hot and sweaty but didn’t get any deeper into the roof surface. Very disappointing.

I also discovered that my roof work will cause me to do a lot of vacuuming. The entire living room got covered by white grit.

Spudding is removing the gravel and some bitumen from the top layer of the roof membrane by chipping or scraping.

I bought an ice scraper at Home Depot. Really. And I commenced to spudding the roof.

This is young man’s work. I got about 10% of it done in a couple of evenings because I work work work rest rest rest, work work rest rest rest rest, work rest rest rest rest rest.

In the meantime, I bought out Home Depot’s peel-and-stick Weatherwatch and decided I should wander down to General Rental to rent a 100-pound roof roller. And then went to sit in the Atlantic bathtub.

I draped the rest of the furniture against dust. Bought more drop cloths and two gallons of milk.

But I didn’t get a roof roller. General Rental is now “Sunbelt Rentals,” a national, full-service rental company with more than 400 locations. And they open only M-F here in Marathon.

I need help so I called my friend George.

OK, George is actually Jorge but most Jorges here say George. He and one of his buddies showed up around 9 ayem yesterday to scrape the rest of my roof.

Finding George was a lot tougher than I expected. None of my other friends or acquaintances or even friends of acquaintances were willing to go up there and I looked for a couple of months.

It was hot yesterday morning. It was hotter yesterday afternoon. It was hot yesterday evening. Woofdah. I wouldn’t mind a good rain to break the heat if I didn’t have the roof open.

George and George’s cousin quit after two hours.

Grumpy old guy outlasted the two young guys on the roof.

It was brutal up there. I worked pretty much the whole time George and George’s cousin were there but I didn’t work as hard, scraping up that rock-and-tar. Still, I was the last man off the roof because I still had to clean up the jobsite when they gave up for the day.

While we were working a city cop with a deputy sheriff backup stopped by on code enforcement. See, we can’t do commercial work on a Sunday here in South Puffin but owners can do anything. He saw I was up there sweating and said, “Have a nice day.”

He wouldn’t come up and help though.

Next up, a sad predicament. The tar repair I did last year was so good, it was unremovable. George’s cousin busted right through to the roof deck and stopped. Called me over.

I inspected.

I shrugged.

Roof deck looks good which is most excellent news.

The BUR job ain’t what I expected, though. Whoever did the roof laid a layer of ordinary tar paper with short roofing nails. Then they laid another layer of ordinary tar paper with more short roofing nails. Lather, don’t rinse, repeat. They swamped the hot tar down on top of all that paper. And poured a couple inches of stone on top of that.

I took over that part and stripped an area probably 8×8′ but I’ll open it up the remaining three feet to the east because that takes me right to the edge of the roof and makes the transition to the existing felt much shorter and much less likely to leak.

George and his cousin did a decent but not perfect job yesterday. I scraped a bit more and then started getting ready for the peel-and-stick.

I worked for a while in sunlight and then rigged a clamp on shop light on my circular saw extension stand. Worked a treat.

Between the new shop broom (best shop broom I own, bar none) and the electric leaf blower, I got the surface pretty well cleaned. Laid some Weatherwatch. I didn’t nail the edges or seal them, so I really hope for continuing dry weather. I also ran out of time and steam and roofing before I got to that open section. One can see light through the holes there. I really really hope for continuing dry weather.

My sweaty work shorts from yesterday still haven’t dried out.

George was here before 8 this morning to finish up but it killed us again so he’s gone for a while until the schefflera puts that section in shade.

I hope all this works.