The Construction of the Rambler

Building a living space for myself has been a dream of mine for as long as I can remember.

Growing up the son of a master woodworker and craftsman, I have always been obsessed with building things to use for whatever hobby I was into at the time. I can remember being 8 years old, making wooden swords out of scraps from my Dad’s woodshop and begging him to battle with me. By the time I was an angsty, skateboarding 14 year old I had built several forts, treehouses, and ramps. My friends and I--unbeknownst to my parents at the time--turned their garage into an all out skate park, with plywood ramps facing each other on either end of the garage. It was our own little skateboarding paradise. Mom and Dad were pretty pissed at first, but they let us keep it for a while.

It wasn’t long before I started to build my own skateboards- mostly flat longboards with the occasional kick tailed mini just for messing around. My best friend Zack went up to college and came back with some videos he’d made of himself power sliding on my 4’ long Big Board- the first one I had built. So naturally we made sliding gloves that allowed us to put our hands on the ground and take longboarding to a whole new level. Any hill, no matter how steep, was now our playground- and it was all made possible by a specially shaped piece of wood and leather work gloves with pieces of star-board velcroed to them. The feeling of creating something to use for your own exploits and having them actually work is indescribable. It’s like being self-sufficient, but not in terms of survival. It’s an enhanced version of doing the things that make you happy. The hard work that goes into getting you to the place where you are doing the things that bring you joy, that bring you peace, is more exciting than any other kind of work.

The coolest thing I have built to date is my stand up paddleboard. It’s got a styrofoam core and is wrapped in 1 lamination of 4 oz fiberglass. The first time I took it out to New Point Comfort Lighthouse was in March of 2016. The water was freezing- my feet were numb- but I didn’t care. There I was, coming as close to walking on water as you can without being Jesus Christ, and the experience was made that much better because I had built that SUP with my own two hands. All of the sanding, shaping, glassing, sanding again, painting, and waiting for epoxy to cure had all led me to that moment of happily freezing my butt off at New Point.  I expect to make more SUPs in the future, but that one will always be my favorite.

Naturally, the next project in my never ending and ever growing list of projects was a house. I didn’t have nearly enough cash on hand to buy land, much less to buy the materials needed to build a house. In late 2016 we were about 90% done with building the first-ever Bayside Cottage and I had fallen in love to stay the least. The cottage was cozy, it was delightfully manageable, and it was everything a 24-year-old guy could want. But it wasn’t just the beautiful woodwork and carpeted loft that had me wrapped around her finger; it was the way she was built. Seeing those full wall panels erected with the exterior glass already applied and ready to paint just made my heart soar. Seeing the way that house had gone from a drawing to a finished product and all of the steps in between changed the way I thought about home building. And I knew it was time to get started on my own.

Before you get too excited, let me just say that for my first Tiny House I decided to go simple. That is not to say she isn’t beautiful inside and out, but I opted to run only electricity to the house- no plumbing or gas lines. She’s only 8’ wide and 16’ long, basically a large bedroom. Eventually I plan on building an identical house that will be my kitchen, bathroom, and laundry room- connecting the two buildings with a deck in between them. The benefits to this sort of “open campus” home are pretty appealing to a guy like me.

First of all, it allows me to build the 2 rooms or buildings independent of each other. The bedroom can be built and moved into before I even start thinking about the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room. Second, when it comes to energy savings, I don’t have to heat the rooms I am not using all the time. In a traditional house, if you put the thermostat at 70 degrees and go into your bedroom, the heat pump will run until all the rooms in the house are that temperature. In my split home, I cannot be in the kitchen and bedroom at one time, so why should two rooms be heated when I am only using one?

standing the walls up gave me butterflies

standing the walls up gave me butterflies

Speaking of cost efficiency, I am very excited to have first-hand experience on the heating and cooling aspects of living in a SIPs Tiny House. These things are very well insulated. In the dead of winter I expect to be able to heat it with a small space heater. In the summer, a small portable air conditioner should do the trick and then some.

The roof panel gets fiberglassed and sealed

The roof panel gets fiberglassed and sealed

The thing about a home is that everybody needs one. Every single human on the face of the planet needs a place to lay their head at night. Unfortunately, not everyone is as fortunate as the majority of us but the fact remains: a house is just as important to a person as food and water.

According to Mark J Perry, finance and economics professor at the University of Michigan, the average square footage of a home in the United States is 1,000 square feet larger today than it was in 1973 - an increase of 61.4%. So what happened? Well people haven’t gotten 61.4% larger over the past 46 years. The average family size is actually smaller, and the average income (adjusted for inflation) is only slightly higher than it was in the 70s. So what gives?

It’s a culture shift.

We’ve seen first hand the dangers of buying more than you can afford- the housing crisis in 2008 sent the US economy into a downward spiral which would have been disastrous if not for the federal bailout. People living beyond their means is still running rampant among Americans who don’t understand that just because you can borrow insane amounts of money doesn’t mean you should. As Brad Pitt explains in Fight Club, “The things you own end up owning you.” It’s high time we start living within our means and experience what it’s like to have actual ownership of one of the most basic human necessities- a home that is durable, affordable, and within our means. Ok, that’s it. I’m done preaching.

I’ve always been amazed to see how things are built, how things are put together, and how they work. This house is no different. In fact, that’s what made me fall in love with these little houses. The first difference between our homes and a “regular” tiny house--if there is such a thing--is that we use SIPs, or Structural Insulated Panels. These have a number of advantages over a standard stick-framed wall not only in the final product, but in the building system itself.

Back in the wooden ship-building days of old England, shipwrights would create a scale model of a ship before they started the real thing. This gave them the ability not only to have a visual reference of the great feat they were about to undertake, but also to make whatever mistakes they made on a much smaller scale the first time. When building with SIPs (or sticks, for that matter) you need to know exactly how your home is going to go together before you even cut your first piece of OSB. I am a bit more computer savvy than the old English shipwright, and I accomplish this by making a 3D model of the entire project using a program called SketchUp. SketchUp is a program where you draw in 3D, rather than draw in 2D and convert it to 3D. This makes for a faster, more immersive design experience. Once you have your 3D model complete, you have access to every single dimension, material, and the overall flow of the building. Making a 3D model first is critical.

making a 3d model before you start building is critical

making a 3d model before you start building is critical

I often wonder if my love of building would still be there if my Dad had chosen another profession. He started off in the workforce as a lineman for the phone company. Suppose he had stuck with that career- would I be as interested in building things as I am? If I did not have a wood shop at my disposal, tools to build with (not to mention the wealth of knowledge that Dad possesses) would I be interested in building things? I guess I’ll never know the true answer, but what I do know is this: my Dad has always been right there to help me with my next project, no matter what it was.  I’ll never forget that time in 3rd grade making these little wooden race cars in church. We would all sand them, paint them, and glue pennies inside the bottom to weigh them down. I remember going up to my Dad, holding out my half-finished car and asking, “Is this good? Is it done?” I suppose I was looking for re-assurance that my sanding skills were up to snuff. His answer was always the same- “If it’s good enough for you, it’s good enough.”

Little did that 10 year old boy know, but that attitude would be there through my teen years and into my twenties. He has always been there to lend his helpful advice without being overbearing. It is very easy to develop a vision for a certain project and expect it to be done that way, even if it is not your project (I know from personal experience). Dad, however, is able to step back and allow me to grow creatively, to make my own decisions and mistakes for myself while still being there to answer any questions and lend a hand in whatever way he can. I remember him telling me once, “Son, your problems are my problems.” I will never forget that. And for it I am forever grateful.

The walls of the rambler are so stiff you can literally pick up one end with a forklift

The walls of the rambler are so stiff you can literally pick up one end with a forklift

Today is Sunday, March 26 2017. Warmer weather is just around the corner and I might be able to meet my self-imposed goal of Memorial Day as my finish date. As of right now, I have most of the exterior completely fiberglassed and sanded. Once the remainder of the glassing is done, she’ll be ready for paint on the inside and out. It is an amazing thing to be able to look ahead and know all of the steps necessary to call this little house a finished product. Given, there are certain things (such as building the built in bed-closet) that I don’t have quite figured out yet, but I know I will be able to tackle it once I get to it. As Jeff Johnson puts it: “The best journeys answer questions that in the beginning, you didn’t even think to ask.” 180 Degrees South is the best documentary I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen it, go watch it now.

And that’s what this is: a journey. Not in the traditional sense, mind you- I have physically stayed in one place since this whole thing started in October. I consider it a journey of the mind; a journey of the intellect. It is the journey of an idea from its purest form- as a thought- to a tangible, livable product. I have worked on my techniques throughout and am in the process of making them as perfect as they can possibly be. The goal is to come out with a seamless, completely waterproof exterior that will last through whatever the world can dish out. What’s exciting about that is (to our knowledge, at least) nobody in the home building market is even attempting this. When you really get down to it, fiberglass is not even heard of in the realm of home building. I can’t help but stop and think, “is this really a such a good idea?” So far, the first tiny home we built is holding up very well outdoors, so we have every reason to believe that the rest will be no different. I am just excited to be able to call one my own.

We recently took on a remodeling job for a gorgeous house in Ware Neck. The house itself is over 100 years old, additions being added as the current owner at the time saw fit. Eventually, someone connected all of the additions with decks on the upper and lower floors, these decks containing beautiful woodwork and lots of space for activities. While walking through the house for the first time, I found myself constantly saying the same word: “wow”. The sheer size of the house is not readily apparent from the outside. As you explore from one room to the other, the house sort of presents itself to you, room-by-room. The kitchen is huge, and is attached to a large dining room, which leads into a foyer which connects to a massive patio deck. Each time you go into a room, the house seems to expand and offer yet another room beyond.

I imagined living there with a community of 15-20 like-minded individuals, who want to share my dream of living at least mostly off of the land; with gardens, livestock, fresh-water collection systems, solar power, etc. Everyone would pitch in and do their part, and in return we would all share this beautiful piece of land on the water, reaping the rewards of our hard work. Sailing, grilling, events, amazing dinners, games, swimming, banging, everything related to the pursuit of pleasure. If you want to see what I’m talking about, watch “The Beach” sometime, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio. You’ll know exactly what I mean.

Then it hit me: You don’t have to own a multi-million dollar property with a 4000 sq ft mansion on it in order to live out this dream. This dream can be easily accomplished with Tiny Houses. Picture this: you purchase a piece of land (on your own or jointly, doesn’t matter), and place however many Tiny Houses all over the property. In the center, you build a large kitchen/ living space with bathrooms which is to be used by everyone who lives there. That way, you could have the option of omitting the kitchen and/or bathroom from the surrounding Tiny Homes, lowering the cost. You can still have your communal gardens, your parties, everything I described above. It could be a community of young couples and professionals looking to live more deliberately and efficiently, coming together to help each other as the ancient nomads and tribes have done for hundreds and thousands of years. It is truly a utopian idea. I realize that. With more people come more challenges, and I am not oblivious to that fact. Again, see the movie, “The Beach”.

It has been over 7 months since I took on this project. Countless hours after work, coffee-breathed mornings, and weekends have led me to this point. My tiny house is finally finished.

My Rambler is situated in the corner of my good friend Will’s yard, tucked between two small white oaks in its own small corner of the world. The shade from the two trees coupled with the super-insulated SIPs construction ensures that it stays nice and cool inside the house (thus far, anyway). A small, treated deck extends from the door side of the house. As I mentioned before, my house has no bathroom or kitchen. This is remedied by a short walk through the trees to Will's house, where I have access to both. I pay a small amount of rent and my share of the utilities, and it works out great for both of us. Looking forward, I cannot wait to build another one. Each house has it's own story. I'm very lucky to be a part of this one.