Frequently asked questions

13 October 2009, from Housetruck

Here are some questions that people often ask.

Is this just going to be your home away from home while you’re traveling or are you planning on living in it full time?

A bit of both. I am designing it to be fully liveable – that is, according to my definition of liveability, which may not be yours. Especially in recent years, I have spent a lot of time making my life simpler. One of my life’s great complexities is the ‘overhead’ of owning or renting a fixed-foundation house on a spot of land, and the maintenance and upkeep that entails. Although I do appreciate being in a beautiful landscape, I have learned that I really don’t need to own it. I’d rather be lighter on my ‘feet,’ and be able to move from place to place, enjoying each of them without the weight of ownership.

At the same time, I love to travel and explore. Although much of my recent wanderings have been outside of the US, I’d love to re-explore this country at a slower pace, as well as potentially take the housetruck down to South America or even (via a ship) go to Europe and beyond.

Why didn’t you modify an existing RV/camper/van/truck/etc.? Why didn’t you build a ‘traditional’ tiny house?

In the early 1990s, I owned a Toyota Chinook camper, and lived in it for a while. Granted, the circa-1975 truck was old when I bought it, but I was surprised by the poor construction and crappy materials. At one point, I ripped out the interior with the intent to replace it with custom-built cabinetry & furniture, and found that it was literally stapled together. Once I was done, the only thing left was the leaky fiberglass shell; soon after, fatal engine problems propelled the Chinook to the junkyard.

Unfortunately, that’s the general standard of RV construction: they’re made to sell, to get off the dealer’s lot, and then to be used perhaps a couple of weeks a year (that’s the average RV usage pattern). Additionally, the layout and infrastructure of RVs are nearly opposite what I want: they are cramped and complicated where I want openness and simplicity, and their infrastructure (heating, cooling, etc.) tends to depend on motors, pumps, and fans, all elements I want to avoid. A simple wooden boat would probably be a better plan, but putting one of those on wheels seems nontrivial.

An Airstream is about the only structure I’d consider retrofitting. I did research that, and found that their interiors are still constructed with standard (mediocre) RV methods. Ripping all that out is possible, but time-consuming, and I’d still end up with a sweating metal skin (see next question).

I first considered building a moveable house in the pattern of a Tumbleweed house, which is, architecturally, a traditional American cottage/cabin. However, I was never comfortable with this design – the roof peak was too high, and the overall shape was not particularly roadworthy. I found a more attractive and functional model in living wagons: these structures seemed built for the road, while the Tumbleweed-style houses seemed built primarily for staying put.

Why did you build it out of steel and wood?

Many tiny houses are built entirely out of wood, using a modified version of the standard American “stick-built” frame construction (e.g., using screws instead of nails). I’ve never liked the American method of all-wood building: although it may be structurally sound, I find it overly complicated and wasteful of resources. I knew about post-and-beam construction, and thought something similar might work. I’d also been impressed with the idea of building with structural insulated panels, where the walls are both form and function; however, the more I researched the environmental aspects of the materials (oriented strand board and urethane foam), the less I wanted to have them anywhere near me.

As I looked into alternate structural and insulation materials, I was talking to friends who were architects and metal sculptors. Several people suggested using steel framing. I realized that building with steel could solve my major architectural issue: keeping the mollycroft roof suspended over the open interior. The strength of steel was more attractive, too, given the fact that I’d be driving this house around, in the equivalent of an earthquake during a hurricane.

While steel seemed to make a fine skeleton, as well as a durable roof, I learned that metal-sided structures tend to have greater problems with condensation — basically, they sweat. Also, my design aesthetic was more along the lines of ‘rustic miner’s cabin’ or ‘Victorian RV’ rather than the steel- or aluminum-skinned streamliners.

When I brought my first model to Byron, my metal fabricator, he looked at my somewhat complex design, and suggested a simple skeleton of 2” square tube steel members, attached at right angles with strong welds, skinned with fairly lightweight plywood to act as both shear walls and protection from the elements.

We probably could have used aluminum, but the cost would have been much higher. And there’s a certain pleasure, to me, of steel: a material with a long history of use, of reuse, and of recycling.

Are you building it yourself?

Yes, mostly. I have many friends and acquaintances who are helping me, too. I have decent woodworking/carpentry skills, but know little about metal fabrication, so I’ve hired out the construction of the internal steel frame. Windows, doors, and cabinetry are other parts that I will probably hire out, as I know enough to know those areas can be tricky.

Where’s your bathroom/toilet/shower/sink?

I decided I didn’t need or want a separate bathroom. I’ve had enough experience with small houses, RVs, and boats to know that a microscopic bathroom is often uncomfortable and a waste of space. So instead, I will have a simple composting toilet that can be stowed away when not in use. If I’m parked in a place that’s private enough, the toilet could even be set up outside.

Similarly, the shower is both simple (a tank that is first heated, then pressurized through a handpump) and moveable (can be hung on hooks from the roof when in use), and also can be used outside.

I made the decision to not have an explicit graywater system. I will probably have a portable tank that I can use to store graywater when necessary, but I’m also very interested in researching microfiltration systems that can be used simply & safely while traveling.

Where have you found your materials?

My building materials can be divided into a few classes, which generally determines the source and types of materials I buy:

How much is it going to cost?

Not as much as you might think. Or more than you might think. Here’s my working budget:

truck (2001 Isuzu NPR, with 91k miles) $ 9,500
steel frame construction 5,500
shell (walls, roof, windows) 4,000
interior (cabinets, furniture, water system, woodstove, refrigerator) 2,000
power (solar panels, batteries, controller, inverter) 2,000
TOTAL $23,000

When is it going to be finished?

I hope to have it road-worthy by December (2009). The woodstove probably won’t be installed until the end of the year, and I’m sure there will be other bits & pieces to be finished along the way.

Can I see it in person? Can I get a ride?

Of course!

It’s being constructed in Silverton, Oregon, in the beautiful Willamette Valley about an hour south of Portland. If you live around here, or are planning on passing through, just drop me a line and we can work out a time that you can come over and see the housetruck under construction.

Once it’s finished, I plan to do a few mobile open-house tours, at least to Portland and Seattle.

This winter I plan to travel in the housetruck down the west coast, across the southern southwest, along the Gulf Coast, and up the east coast to at least Washington, DC (my hometown). I haven’t decided on the return route as yet. But if you’re anywhere along that route and want to meet up, I’d love to do so.