Category Archives: learning curve

Learning to build, then building, then learning to fix our mistakes

by Sarah

So this house-building thing takes a long time.  The house may be tiny… but it still takes a long time!

After reviewing the Tumbleweed DVD this morning, we realized we’d missed a little detail… the sheathing that we’ve put up on the three walls we’ve constructed was supposed to overhang above and below the wall in order to attach to the roof and trailer’s fascia.  We made an overhang below the wall and not above.  It’s probably not that big of a deal.  As in, we won’t have to re-do those walls.  We will figure out a way to fix it, to attach small pieces of sheathing to something, to make it work.

After this little setback, and the ensuing disappointment, I reminded myself that:

1.  It’s got to be about the process and not just the destination.  Because the destination is far away, sometimes it feels very far away.

2.  We are learning how to build.  This is a useful and transferable skill.

3.  We are learning to work together.

4.  We are learning to be humble and to learn a new thing.  How often in our adult lives do we get to learn something totally new, to be complete beginners again?  Not that often.

I hesitated writing this post, because I want this website to be fun, and not to focus too much on the frustrations.  At the same time, frustration is a big part of building a tiny house if you’ve never built a house before.  I want to be honest about this.  It is hard.  It’s not obvious.  There are many little pieces and no clear and simple recipe.  Building is an art, and it’s vast.  We are sloppily finger-painting our ways towards something.  I hope it will be a house that stands straight, resists rains, and keeps us warm.

I did feel encouraged when I ran through those four points, though, reminding myself of all the ways we are learning and growing, even when the external progress on the house appears so slow.

Also encouraging, we’ve had company this week!  Joseph’s brother Adam stayed with us for the past ten days and it was so fun to have another person to build with.  Since we left our Sonoma build site, it’s just been the two of us (and sometimes only Joseph!).  Having Adam here reminded us of how fun and energizing it is to do things with other people!

Here are some photos of our build progress.

Building the latest wall
Building the latest wall

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Adam and Joseph cutting the plywood to fit around the wheel well.
Adam and Joseph cutting the plywood to fit around the wheel well.
Adam
Adam

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We've got three walls!
We’ve got three walls!
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Moving Half a House

There we were: going along building our house, thinking about walls, about windows, about roofs… when we arrived one morning to a  Cease and Desist order from the Town of Sonoma!  What happened?

When we had researched the legality of building on our group build site everything looked good.  We found many instances in the Sonoma building code in which what we were doing was not actually “building,” because our houses are on wheels, the build site was temporary, and more.  We thought we were good to go.

However.  While we were not in violation of the rules around building, we were in violation of the rules around the stuff you can do in that zone of Sonoma.  Our build site was located in a Multi-Use Zone.  In the Multi-Use zone you can do X,Y, and Z.  And you can’t do A,B, or C.  And even if you are doing “J” or “12” or “Tiny House,” which is not specifically prohibited, since it is also not specifically allowed…. we are not allowed to do it!  After a number of long conversations with the very helpful, courteous, but firm professionals at the Sonoma City Planners Office, we accepted it.  We had to Cease and Desist; we had to build elsewhere.

So, bright and early one warm Sonoma Saturday morning, Joseph and I arrived at the build site.  We re-attached the taillights to our trailer (which required some amateur electrical re-wiring), we nailed on some kickstand 2X4s to support our two walls, we strapped our walls into place with yellow straps tested at 10,000 pounds and snugged them up tight, we piled all the materials we could manage into the bed of the truck, and we headed off on a slow journey back to the sheep ranch where we live.

Serious straps on our plywood sheathing.
Serious straps on our plywood sheathing

In case you were wondering: No, it is not a good idea to move half a house.  It is not a good idea to go flinging down the backroads of Sonoma County with two heavy walls, attached in an L-shape to each other and to your trailer.  Not recommended.  But we didn’t want to deal with taking the walls down, and then somehow getting them up again by ourselves, so we went for it.

It was a slow and occasionally harrowing journey.  At the last moment, only about 100 feet from it’s new site, one of the walls buckled and a kickstand snapped off.  But, on the whole, we got our house home in one piece.  Huge sighs of relief.

New location for the tiny house build
New location for the tiny house build

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As you may know from our last post, we live on a sheep ranch near Petaluma where we are caretakers for the sheep and the property.  The owners and leasers of the ranch were generous enough to allow us to continue our tiny house build on this property, and here we are.  Our group build-mates are not sure where they’ll move their builds.  They are still waiting on their SIPS, so they have some time to figure it out… but let us know if you have some Sonoma property where they could build!

We’re now embarking on a new stage of our build process, Group Build 2.0, so to speak.  We are still cooperating and helping each other out, but now our process is spread out across the county, with our little house going up right outside of our current house.  In the video below we show the tiny house in its new location, and talk a little bit about the pros and cons of this new situation.

Lessons learned:  Check out all applicable municipal codes very carefully.  Don’t move half a house, or if you do, breathe deeply and drive slowly!

If anyone else is planning to build in the town of Sonoma, we would be happy to send you all the relevant and well-researched details of what we know now about building there, just ask!

The Discomfort and the Freedom of Not Knowing

The hot Sonoma sun beat down on our shiny black trailer, our sunhats, and our neatly placed two-by-fours.  Those 2X4s had not come easy.  2X4s (as I learned only recently) are used to make studs, which are like the bones of the house.  The first part of framing the walls is cutting the 2X4s to the right size and nailing them together.  We’d spent most of the previous day working with the building plans to accommodate our salvaged windows and our trailer, which seemed to be slightly narrower than the one in the plans.  I can’t imagine how it took us so long to adjust the plans for that first wall, but I’ll just say I haven’t seen so many fractions since the third grade, and there are many hidden dimensions, overlaps, and extra spaces that need to be accounted for.

Nicola, our architect friend, stopped by to say hi.  I asked him about one of our assumptions–that our trailer was two inches narrower than the trailer in the plans.

“No….” he said, “The wall extends for an inch beyond the trailer on both sides.”  And he went on to show us how the wall in the plans was designed to be wider than the trailer.

“Okay,” I said, trying to sound cheerful and resilient and ready to start all over again.  When Nicola left we set the 2X4s aside and took a long lunch break. We barely spoke except to say, “disheartened… demoralized… disappointed.”

Joseph muttered, “Of course, I should have known.”

I sat with my complete unknowing, wondering, “What makes me think I can do this thing that professionals do?”

It is so uncomfortable to know so little, to work so hard to try to understand and then to fail and have nothing to show for all that work.  It’s hard enough in general to not fall victim to imposter syndrome (when people, especially women, underestimate their own expertise), and now I’ve taken on a project where I really don’t know anything.  I don’t even know what some of these tools are called!  The challenge is to withstand the uncomfortable feeling of incompetence.  There are lots of things I am good at, and wouldn’t be more comfortable to just do those?

Seth Godin says, “Learn something new for no apparent reason,” as part of his artist’s path.  As we get older we are less and less comfortable with starting at the beginning. We feel we are too old to be true beginners.  We feel silly.  Like when you are learning a language and meet young native-speaking children,

“That four-year-old speaks better Spanish than I do!  With a perfect accent!”  In fact, she speaks better Spanish than I ever will.

The challenge is to immerse myself completely in this learning, even not seeing how it connects to what I’ll do once this project is over.  I need to learn as much as I can so I can do this project right now, whether or not I ever do it again.  This can be frustrating and demoralizing… but maybe it can also be a kind of freedom, a kind of bemused awe at the myriad things I’m not an expert in, but can now appreciate the depth of skill of someone who is.

It’s even a bit of a relief to know nothing.  I am just a person who never learned to build and is now, for some reason, trying to do so, stumbling along putting together a durable, square, impermeable house.  If I mess it up it doesn’t say anything about my value as a person.  My ego has nowhere to stand.  Occasionally she gets a bit of a toehold,

“Aha, I’m actually not bad at measuring and cutting 2X4s on the chop saw.”  But then they don’t fit!  What happened?

All this humility is uncomfortable, exhausting, and… good practice.   After our lunch break we started again–back to modifying the plans, measuring, cutting.  We finished our first framed wall the following afternoon.  We can do it, but slowly, slowly.

When you’ve started something as an adult and a true beginner, how was that for you?  Did you enjoy the freedom to fail?  Or were you frustrated by not being able to do what others did so easily?  Or some combination?

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2X4s, properly measured, cut, and arranged, at last