A Tiny Natural House

Another tiny houser lives just around the corner! Light Straw Clay Walls with Rough Plaster & Stained Salvaged Floors

This week I had the pleasure of meeting a carpenter who has built her own tiny house in the backyard of the property she owns in Northeast Portland. Katie's green eyes start twinkling as she shows me around her Little House: her cozy abode, her labor of love. Katie's only a few inches taller than me and she teaches carpentry for a living. Needless to say, I have a new hero. And since her house is still a work in progress and she's one of my nearest neighbors, I hopefully have a new mentor as well. She'll be working on the Little House each weekend this spring and I've promised to set aside the books when I can to help out.

Light Straw Clay Tutorial

Katie considered building her tiny house on a trailer but decided against it for two main reasons. First, she wanted a wider house. The 8'5" restriction on width that makes a tiny house on wheels street legal is a major constraint in terms of layout. It's amazing what people have managed to do with less than 9 feet of width, but it's even more amazing what you can do if you have three more feet with which to play! Second, Katie wanted to use natural building materials and was particularly interested in trying out light straw clay for her wall system.

Friends Help at Light Straw Clay Work Party

Unfortunately, natural building wall systems and mobility don't play well together. Natural materials are often heavier than synthetic materials and they are more fragile. Plaster and tile are likely to crack if moved and natural insulations are more likely to settle. Natural materials also take up more room to achieve the desired effect. For instance, straw bales provide fantastic insulation against cold and noise infiltration, lend themselves to neat windowsills and windowseats, and create an amazing surface for plaster. I've worked on two straw bale houses and I look forward to building my straw bale dream home someday. In a place like Walla Walla, where straw is a waste produce of the wheat industry, straw bale is a sustainable and appropriate building material. But even if you place bales "on edge" (on their narrowest side), you're still looking at fourteen inch thick walls!

Tamping Light Straw Clay into Walls

Light straw clay walls can be built much thinner than straw bale walls, but they still require more space than stick framing. Katie's light straw clay walls are 8 inches thick to provide the same insulating value as a standard 2 x 6 wall. Light straw clay is a mixture of clay and straw that is compacted into the wall cavity using either plywood slips or woven mats to hold the material in place while it dries. Light straw clay has the insulating properties of straw with the massive properties of clay and once it is covered in a homemade plaster the walls have a beautiful natural look. Katie's will be a nice creamy color that will brighten up the space and contrast nicely with her dark wood trim and floors. The thickness and fragility of natural wall systems simply aren't practical for a tiny house on wheels. So Katie decided to build directly on-site.

After drafting up dozens of different floor plans she settled on the current layout which includes a main room for socializing, cooking, and lounging, a bathroom, and a sleeping loft that extends over a deep porch. Beautiful beams that run across the width of the house will remain exposed when the peaked ceiling is covered with lath strips. Her bathroom will be a wet bath with a shower head in the ceiling and a drain in the floor. It will include a compost toilet, a soaking tub, and a little corner sink. Katie says her love for entertaining was a guiding aspect of her design. Even though her house is only 190 square feet her fold-out table and open kitchen plan allow her to comfortably host dinner parties for a dozen friends at once. Many of the materials for the house are salvaged including beautiful wood flooring, roughhewn trim, and an apartment-sized electric range and oven. She has shaped her house around the windows and door that she acquired for free. (She's currently on the lookout for two round windows for the loft. If you know where she can score a couple, let us know!)

Light Straw Clay Work Party

Katie has enjoyed the sense of independence of doing most of the work herself, but she's also grateful for the help of some talented friends and family members. A group of friends joined her for a light straw clay work party. Her sister, an electrician, is doing her electrical work and a friend who does iron working is helping with shelves. She plans to have a couple more work parties this spring so that she can move in and enjoy summer in her Little House. She is particularly looking forward to sitting out on her covered porch in the evenings to watch her chickens pecking around the garden while the sun sets.

Cheers to that!

Successful Window Shopping

When you're looking for windows instead of through them window shopping tends to be an expensive excursion. Fortunately, it wasn't nearly as expensive as it would have been if Jane had sprung for new windows. She decided to use salvaged windows for her tiny house for several reasons: she's interested in reusing materials to give them a second chance and keep them out of the landfill, she wanted to save money, and she enjoys the character of found objects. We're not going for the cobbled-together look that characterizes so many house trucks, but we knew that using some salvaged materials could give the house some quirky character. Jane likes Britt's Bungalow but feels like it's a little too straight-edge for her style.

So this week Jane and I made a trip to a nearby window liquidators to scout for windows for her tiny house. We had our wishlist in-hand but since we were looking for salvaged windows we knew that we'd have to be flexible about exact dimensions. We also knew we'd be taking a risk that some of the windows wouldn't be in ideal shape. So we set out determined to inspect everything carefully and to set some standards.

All salvaged windows must:

  • Be in good working order with all their necessary components
  • Have wooden interior frames or wood-clad interiors
  • Be double-paned and have screens
  • Open in the proper direction according to the tiny house layout

We found a fantastic 5-foot wide sliding door which will be the main door for the tiny house. We snagged a pair of windows that will make good dormer windows in the sleeping loft. We also selected several windows that will work for the kitchen windows. Jane considered purchasing one large new window for the window seat so that she could have exactly what she wanted, but she ended up deciding that going with a fixed picture window and two operable windows on the side walls would provide nice cross-ventilation while saving her several hundred dollars. All-in-all the windows and door cost just over $1,000 (about a third of what they would have cost new).

The design process is, of course, iterative, but having some constraints can actually help make the process more manageable since we're not starting with an endless series of choices. Besides, it's sometimes easier to design around a neat found object than to try to find exactly the right piece to fit into the plan, so the windows are a great find.