Hello blog. I forgot you existed. Again.

This is my first real blog post since August of 2014. One that doesn’t involve programming, some tech nonsense or a reblog of someone else’s post. Work, school and life in general has kept me from blogging much. I’ve also grown accustomed to Twitter, which eats up more of my free time. What little there is of that.

Some things happened

I went back to school and between classes and work I was slowly working on my cabin. Yes, there will be a cabin! Specifically, I decided to downscale from the 16 x 16 design I was playing around with previously and decided to go 8 x 12. More on that later.

School is just for a piece of paper. I doubt I’ll be actually using much of what I learn in school, although I’m sure some of it will come in handy. It’s getting increasingly difficult to find work as just another face in the crowd of freelance developers and consultants; which is ironic since in the early 2000s, all you needed was proficiency. These days, more employers want that degree before going any further. That’s a shame as there’s a vast talent pool out there that never went to school for the things they excel at.

I don’t want to continue down the tech path, but going to school is actually giving me a sense of relief in an odd way. It’s letting me focus on something besides just work which I’m starting to bore of rapidly. Actually I want to move on to working with my hands more and more, although my previous experience with tech prevented me from gaining the valuable experience needed to do that comfortably.

Soap is on hold. I wanted to start the soap company ages ago, but finding time to get it done properly is quite difficult. Also, I’m in an apartment that’s hardly spacious (it costs an arm, a leg and a firstborn to find an affordable one in New York if you’re not financially well off). I don’t like to do things half-heartedly and because this is a Health and Beauty product, I want to make sure it’s something that’s safe and I’ll be proud of years down the line. Hard to do that when working in a limited space that you also have to live in.

On cabins

This is one of the better points in the hiatus. I actually settled on an 8 x 12 cabin size which is quite a bit smaller and more manageable, I think, than 1 & 1/2 floor 16 x 16 design I was contemplating previously. A lot of that was down to simplicity and the sense that the scope of my needs would increase exponentially with more space. I don’t want to do “work” at home like I’m doing now and if I start making soap in my cabin, that’s exactly what will happen. Home is for rest, relaxation, solitude and a peace of mind; not work. Allowing work to creep in is quite a bit harder in a smaller space.

The other big reason for downsizing is the sense that I have too many things. A bed, a table and chair, place to make a small meal is really all I need. A place to poop can be built outdoors and there are many composting toilet options that are quite nice and fit in a thimble. A shower stall, since a bath would be a waste of water, could also easily be built outdoors. I’m not planning to build this in a largely populated area in the first place so privacy isn’t really an issue. Taking a shower mid-winter would be interesting to say the least, but I’m willing to try it out.

What really confirmed my choice of downsizing was this video by Dale Calder

That man is, frankly, magnificient. And he’s got almost all the basics covered. Heat, shelter, a place to cook and sleep. No place to poop or take a shower yet, but like I mentioned above, these can be dealt with later.

The size, 8 x 12 is deliberate as it folds nicely into standard sized construction material in the U.S. Most plywood or OSB sheets are 4 x 8 and their multiples are a perfect fit. And if I keep the height of the walls to under 8 feet, I can limit the vertical cuts as well. As a happy coincidence of the size, I found I may not need a permit in certain areas to build this as it falls just under 100 square feet.

To make soap and other stuff, I intend to build a separate structure. Work stays in the work shed while living happens in the cabin. The two shall never mix!

On locations

I abhor traffic noise. It’s one of the worst kinds of noise pollution as it it’s something we’ve grown up with and think of as normal. It shouldn’t be. At least not to me.

I’ve been looking at places in upstate New York and I was pleasantly surprised at how sparsely populated a lot of it is. This is a double-edged sword as I also need basic supplies and I don’t like the idea of being too far removed from civilization. I’m the loner type, but I’m not sure how long I can go without human contact. I’m also not sure I’m ready to find out that limit just yet.

I love the shade, especially after being cooked alive in this apartment by direct Sun, and wanted to find a place surrounded by trees. These are plenty, but again have a down side. Since I plan to make this completely off-grid, that would mean finding a clearing to put solar panels. I’ll need to work that out somehow. I may just end up building a small “power shed” in a clearing that houses nothing but the batteries and inverter with solar panels on top and run the wire underground back to the cabin in the shade. A tad more complicated and a bit more expensive, but we’ll see if that’s actually feasible.

Being too far away from coffee is another problem. I like my solitude, but not at the cost of the sacred bean. Even rural Alaskans get their coffee somehow, so I’m sure I’ll work it out.

On sustenance

I don’t need a whole lot of food, especially when my physical demands don’t involve carrying much.

Upstate gets a lot of snow which will cut into the farming time. I do plan on starting a small garden that will hopefully take care of some of my nutritional needs. Carbs, vitamins, amino acids, minerals. Most of these can be taken care of with a greenhouse after I’ve settled in. A greenhouse would also help with a winter time supply of food when everywhere else would be too cold to grow anything.

I’ve been looking at vertical gardens. Particularly grow towers which are usually made from PVC drain tubes of 3-4 inches and involve a drip or spray system. Here’s a handy video showing what these look like and how they can be constructed.

He uses a rope to provide the nutrition drip and I think I can work out something else that’s a bit more reliable. Either way, it’s a great way to concentrate the number of plants you can grow (depending on suitability) in a small space. The growth medium is straw packed into the tube, but I think it’s better to use actual net cups as that prevents the plant from falling in. A much better example of that is here.

A net cup system coupled with the efficiency of creating the holes in the previous video will do quite well in a small greenhouse. Obviously, not all plants are suited to this setup (E.G. potatoes), but it will take a significant number of plants that do support the setup.

On support

I still need to work. I don’t know if soap will actually be profitable soon after I move in. In fact, it may turn out to be a pretty big expense at least at first. The only way I can see it working is if I build a superior product and market it the best way I can. I do believe I can make s superior product; certainly better than the overwhelming majority of small-time soaps. So that just leaves the marketing.

I’m sure I’ll still need more supplies from elsewhere, but if I can cut down on the number of things I need to buy, the more I can enjoy my time to myself.

Food, water, shelter. The basics of roughing it can be managed for quite some time on very minimal resources. If you think about it, the majority of our expenses are about keeping up appearances, not actually supporting ourselves. Once that’s out of the way, all my disposable income should be my own.

Meanwhile, I’ll probably still keep working in tech, but only as far as it’s absolutely necessary.

And there you have the rundown of what I’ve been up to all this time.

A look back at the cabin design progress

It’s coming along. I promise.

This is just a timeline for me of how my ideas fleshed out over time. Progress made and lessons learned. I’m still in the middle of designing the basics of my “Kleinhaus” (small house) and this is a bit of a timeline how we came to the current phase. From newest to oldest:

2014

2013

2012

So there you have it. I’m still in the process of putting ideas to paper which will be posted here soon. In the process of creating these posts, I’ve had the opportunity to speak to real architects and discuss ideas on modularization. I.E. I want to be able to make incremental changes as technologies and codes change without affecting the rest of the structure.

Part of that process has been creating a “Utility Wall” which will house the majority of the plumbing and electrical circuits. Since the kitchen and bathroom share this wall, I feel this will be the most sensible approach to this. The wires in the walls for outlets and switches will all congregate in the upper section of this utility wall. The majority of the plumbing will be toward the lower section separated from the electrical panel by at least two stud widths in case there’s a leak.

I’m not the first person to come up with a utility “module” of sorts as I came across these videos recently :



I think that gives a brief glimpse of what’s possible and since my Utility Wall will be larger than this, I’m sure I can work in the electrical hookups with ample room to spare as well as improve safety. Since the utility wall wouldn’t be load-bearing, we can cut as many holes as needed in the studs without compromising structural integrity.

An additional benefit of the modularization would be being able to move the kitchen and bathroom to either side of the utility wall. This will also enable moving the stairs and front door to either side as well, without changing the rest of the structure. Considering that I’m designing this not just for me, but for anyone interested to take and run with, I feel having this kind of flexibility is essential to adoption.

I haven’t worked much on the roof yet as that’s proving to be a trickier affair. Supporting a fair amount of weight while maintaining a simple profile is proving to be a challenge. A single slope roof would be the simplest to design, but building it in a safe manner would be a bit of a challenge. Multiple slopes is easier, counter-intuitively, easier to build in some ways as the methodologies are well established, as are the building techniques. More pondering is in order.

Kleinhaus: Cabin progress

Just a heads up that I’m still not dead and the cabin designs are progressing well, albeit a tiny bit slowly, since the last time I posted an actual design update. I’ve since named this whole cabin project “Kleinhaus” (German for “Small house” — I thought it was pretty clever). I moved away from fancy pure-Photoshop footwork to basic drawing and then scanning followed by a Photoshop cleanup. I found this to be a tad easier and I’ve had lots of helpful suggestions from folks since I started this journey. Many thanks to all of you.

2 Sheets done (hopefully)

The following are sheets 3 and 4 of the overall blueprint which detail the foundation. I’m still working on the elevation views and floor plan and the overall shape of the cabin has changed a bit to accommodate some much needed design overhauls. Gone are the weird 21-24-21 joist spacing of the first layout. This time, it’s all 24″ on center joists for simplicity and my own sanity. I did away with starting from estimates and then moving on to measuring and instead started with concrete measurements first. I found that this makes more sense since it’s harder to skew corners or screw up the lengths on paper. That doesn’t mean these are free of errors and you should go ahead and start with these measurements without double-checking!

These are only 1200 x 1623 full size, but the actual image I’m working with is 5620 x 7600 pixels (18.73 x 25.33 inches at 300 pixels/inch) which is a tad too large to post here. I’m going to make the full size blueprints available as a PDF or something as soon as I finish and correct any errors.

As always, these are provided as-is. Always check the measurements first, follow local building codes, there be dragons etc… etc…

Kleinhaus 16x16 Cabin: Sheet 3

Kleinhaus 16×16 Cabin: Sheet 3

Kleinhaus 16x16 Cabin: Sheet 4

Kleinhaus 16×16 Cabin: Sheet 4

Pellet Stove 3.0 (now in color)

After almost 2 years since the last iteration and my considerations on heating the cabin, I’ve finally gone ahead and made some much needed improvements; particularly related to safety. This version does away with using old gas cylinders (propane etc…) as the burn chamber and sticks to plain, steel, square tubing and flat stock with maybe an angle or two thrown in for reinforcement. This was following some much needed advice I got from a welder who emailed me after reading my previous post (thanks, Mike!)

For comparison, this is the original “automatic stove” idea.

This is a quick sketch of all my ideas for an "automatic" pellet stove

This is a quick sketch of all my ideas for an “automatic” pellet stove

And the 2.0 design.

Stove 2.0 with improvements

Stove 2.0 with improvements

And the new and improved 3.0. Note, the flue/cleanout setup is the same as in version 2.0.

Stove 3.0 with new safety measures and simpler materials.

Stove 3.0 with new safety measures and simpler materials.

For this design, I’ve made using flux core welding wire to put it together a bit easier. Flux core tends to be more beginner-accessible (no gas needed) a tad safer and requires less skill, which is a big deal since this design is meant to be DIY. I’ve also increased the diagram size and font sizes by request. Apparently, a lot of folks couldn’t read my rubbish text without squinting at the screen. Apologies for that. I really didn’t expect any more than the 4-5 regulars who read my blog to be interested in the design, let alone the 300(!) who emailed me.

I’ve separated the interior components to two easily distinguishable sections : The stainless steel pellet hopper made of thinner flat sheets clad in cement board and the burn chamber with its all square tubing and flat stock construction.

Flat stock is almost always easier to weld than curved surfaces; as is cutting it. If your material has the same thickness, it makes switching temperatures, changing welding wire, voltage etc… completely unnecessary within each section. We can stick to one temp, one voltage, one thickness and, best of all, we’re not relying on old gas cylinders which may or may not withstand the high temperatures they were never designed to endure.

The only time any temp changes would be necessary is for the stainless steel hopper. I elected to use stainless here since often, the pellets you get from the store may contain moisture. The pellets in the burn chamber will, of course, quickly dry out making moisture less of a problem. The thinner stainless steel hopper is also separated from the hot burn chamber by the slight gap created by the space needed for the pellet stop. This tiny gap, along with the cement board wrapped around it, greatly reduces the amount of heat transferred to the rest of the hopper and our (highly flammable) fuel.

The grate is now designed to be replaced relatively easily if necessary since it’s in one piece and welded only at one spot that’s accessible by the air inlet pipe. There are two grates to ensure burnt ashes fall away without being sucked back into the burn chamber and without clogging the air inlet. In addition, this allows hot ashes to cool down in the lower chamber which isn’t as exposed to the full heat of the burn grate.

Also, being mildly OCD, I wanted to ensure there’s ample room to put a wide tray underneath the stove to collect all the burnt ashes without making a mess of my floor. The bent steel rods used as feet reduce the heat transfer to the floor, which may be bamboo or hardwood.

I also tried reducing the overall size of the stove. This one is about the same height and is roughly 2 – 3 times the width as a full ATX tower computer case, like the one housing the computer I’m typing this post in. I want it to be safe and stable, produce enough heat while still be “out of my way” as much as possible. The interior of the entire stove case is clad in cement board (such as Durock®) and the case itself is cut 4 – 5 inches short of the front hot exhaust tube with only cement board used to close opening. This reduces the heat transmission from the exhaust to the rest of the case while at the same time allowing me to reduce the interior volume needed for insulation.

If anyone does build this design or find it useful in any way, please drop me a line and let me know. Any improvements or suggestions are most welcome.

Enjoy!

The cabin design (or back to basics)

For the last year or so, I’ve been trying to put together the interior of my cabin so I’ll know what areas need windows and where I can put the plumbing. This got to be too cumbersome, so I moved to starting the design from the exterior and moving inward. This too, as several people have taught me over email, is also a case of Doing It Wrong. (Thanks, guys. I owe you lots of coffee!)

Parallel design

The solution, it turned out, is to start both at once. The interior influences the exterior and visa versa. You need to be prepared to adjust both as necessary, however the interior cannot get sacrificed for exterior fancy. This was the biggest mistake I’ve been making so far.

And it’s such an easy mistake to make.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not a trained architect and I haven’t studied structural engineering (I mean, I started studying engineering in school, but then something went horribly wrong and I ended up in computers… which I hate.)

So between the helpful email sessions and close to 20 or so drafts, I decided I’ve approached this whole thing with the wrong attitude.

Beautifully impractical

I’ve fallen under the spell of first impressions. I see a design for a cabin or tiny house that’s absolutely stunning and think, “Yes! That’s what I want!” But is it really? There are times when what seems to be such an inviting place will be a nightmare to live in.

Case in point, here’s a design that was love at first sight…

The snow really makes the picture, doesn't it?

The snow really completes the picture, doesn’t it?

Close-ups of the front left and rear right.

Close-ups of the front left and rear right.

...And in the spring/summer.

…And in the spring/summer.

As much as I’d love to live here, I can already hear the grumblings of people who have actually built houses. All that glass, while giving a fantastic view of the surroundings, would make this place near-impossible to cool in the summer and equally so to heat in the winter. It’s a magnificent piece of art meant to be looked at and desired.

But like a piece of art, it’s not really meant to be used.

Window overload

While the above cabin example has windows all around, there are others that put the majority in the Northern face for increased interior illumination and view without adding to the cooling costs in the summer. But… can you spot the issue with the design below? (via Apartment Therapy)

Olle Lundberg's "Sonoma Escape"

Olle Lundberg’s “Sonoma Escape”

I love this design. And it breaks my heart to say, I can’t live here either.

This has been the biggest dilemma I’ve had so far. I love windows. I hate lack of privacy. I’m sure the pragmatic types will say “curtains!” But it’s not so simple really.

It would be pretty silly to have all those magnificent windows all covered up.

Enter (and exit) the Flat Roofs

A flat or low slope roof on a tiny house seems to almost be a de-facto standard for “ultra modern” designs these days. You can’t even picture one without thinking of that phrase “if we’re destined to live in boxes, why not build better boxes?” But we’re not really living in boxes, are we?

You can see this in items that are meant to be stacked outside like container boxes. The weight is actually delivered to the corners, which is then transferred to the bottom. But they’re not meant to deal with things like heavy snow or solar panels on the roof.

Flat roofs, while aesthetically appealing, suffer a big, hard to ignore, problem: They need frequent maintenance. Those who say otherwise, haven’t installed or maintained a flat roof. Sure, there are new membranes and methods of installation, cool roofs etc… however these too don’t account for the increased load the structure will withstand, especially if it’s made of wood.

It's gorgeous! But will it survive 3 feet of snow? How about gusts of 60Mph+ ?

It’s gorgeous! But will it survive 3 feet of snow? How about gusts of 60Mph+ ?

There’s another issue with flat roofs that’s directly related to my own frailties (not to turn this into a sob story).

I already mentioned this in a previous post; I’ve had juvenile arthritis since about the age of 12. Something I’ve inherited from my grandmother. I’m 30 years old now, but I’ve come to accept that in another 15 – 20 years, my fingers and hands will have reached the end of their useful life. It’s already a little difficult for me to type for long at a stretch and if I keep at it for most of the day, I have to stop and gulp some Aleve before going on.

If I’m gonna build a cabin that I know will probably be the place I’d want to live in for the rest of my life, do I have it in me to follow through with its upkeep? I don’t want to end up in an old folks home. That’s the one fear I’ve had all these years so if I can’t fix the leaks in my roof myself or can’t afford to pay someone, that’s exactly where I’ll end up.

A house for me should be safe for me, functional for me and above all else, last for me. Ideally, it should last for others who copy the design as well, as I’ve mentioned previously, it will be open source.

How do people who build these for a living do it?

This should have been the question I ask myself, but when you’ve fooled yourself into thinking you know what you’re doing as I had, it’s also pretty easy to ignore. But getting down to brass tacks, here are a few examples (via Tiny House Blog).

Namekagon Cabins "Park Model" Notice how it has no frills whatsoever.

Namekagon Cabins “Park Model” Notice how it has no frills whatsoever.

Interior right as you enter the "Park Model"

Interior right as you enter the “Park Model”

...and interior left.

…and interior left.

One thing that struck me immediately is that these are designed to last not a few years — if the foundation is permanent — they’re designed to last several decades. I don’t know what the foundation is like exactly (looks like it may be surface only), but this is, for all intents and purposes, built like a tank.

The windows are few and much smaller than I had in mind, but it works in this application. So…

Back to the drawing board

After some back and forth over emails with some very knowledgeable people, it seems the foundation of the cabin is the one part I got right the last time. Some would have preferred 16″ on center floor joists, but said 24″ is acceptable provided I double the base flooring ( 2 layers of OSB with overlapping joints ). I was told this will greatly reduce or completely get rid of the “bounce” which will be critical when I install the tiling in the bathroom. Don’t need cracks in those the first year of occupancy.

I’m having another go at the ye olde Photoshop this week to see what else I can come up with. The foundation, as mentioned, was the only thing that seemed just fine so that will remain as-is. The rest? We shall see…