The Mayday Experiment: Attack of the Killer Mold

Black mold could be a big problem for a tiny house.
Black mold could be a big problem for a tiny house.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

I was making another interminable hardware-store run after one of the heavy rains that had been slowing our progress on the tiny house last summer. Even though I was often up late working, Philip Spangler, my friend from graduate school who was helping me build the tiny house, was generally a later sleeper than I, in his imperfect cocoon of a futon in the corner of my living room. This shouldn't have been a problem -- he could work as late as he wanted, we reasoned -- but like clockwork every afternoon the usual Colorado monsoon would wash over us, sending us scurrying to gather tools and rush inside to wait it out.

It definitely wasn't helping the work flow. See also: Tiny House, Big Problems on the Road to Simplicity

Philip quibbled with the term "Monsoon Season," which puzzled me -- as a Coloradan, I'd never known it as anything else. In fact, I'd taken the late-summer wash of daily afternoon rains, like climate clockwork, so for granted that I'd forgotten to even mention it to Philip, who was always surprised by the rain. But then, I'd failed to mention the sunshine, too... I figured my constant complaining in Ohio's gray winters during my time at the Ohio State University would have delivered the message about Colorado's legendary sunshine across, but he was unprepared, not to mentioned sunburned. I had warned him of altitude sickness, which he didn't experience in the least. Go figure.

Monsoons lead to mold.
Monsoons lead to mold.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy

The idea that we called it a Monsoon Season made him roll his eyes (and was the basis of one of our many hysterical and ridiculous fights: why rainbows are curved, whether or not Ohio has any authentic Mexican food, and the pronunciation of the word "chile" amongst them); he thought we were being melodramatic, given the type of Monsoon he had heard of -- the kind that might wipe out homes in Bangalore, for example. However, I've always understood it from the climatology perspective: It's merely a descriptor of a seasonal weather pattern. Ours may not be as dramatic, but then again, Estes Park and Lyons were underwater at the tail end of 2013's season, so drama is not completely unknown. Since he's from Ohio, rain isn't such a phenomenon for Philip - but here in the high desert, rain brings welcome relief from the heat of the day for only a few short months. In Ohio, it just makes it muggy and even more miserable, and invites the mosquitos out.

Picking up all the necessities for the day's work at Home Depot that morning, my phone rang, flashing Philip's name. It was earlier than I would have expected to hear from him; he would have been having his morning cigarette out on the sidewalk, mulling over the house and planning what was next. I answered, and he sounded panicked: "Oh my god...we have MOLD."

The night before, knowing that a hard rain was gonna fall, Philip had covered the trailer with plastic as always. We had just installed the new floor, a couple hundred dollars worth of ¾" plywood, and we wanted it to stay as dry as possible. This had been our habit all summer, placing a large sheet of clear plastic over the trailer and holding it down with cinderblocks and excess chunks of metal and lumber. However, the forecast was predicting high winds and possibly hail, so Philip and my intern, Nico Larsen, diligently went the extra step of stapling down the plastic all around.

And here is where our problems began. Keep reading for more on the tiny house.   The plastic wasn't completely watertight, and the amount of rain that fell, quickly, went straight under - where it was trapped, in a petrie-dish like environment. When Philip pulled the plastic off in the morning, he saw black mold, everywhere, deep and rich like a velvety assassin.

Black mold is a legendary destroyer of homes. A known culprit behind health problems, it can lurk stealthily in your walls, a hidden menace that will flare up in humidity. In dry Colorado it isn't much of a problem, but my intention to drive around the country could potentially make this disastrous. It would have to be mitigated somehow.

Driving back from my errands I was in a panic, and assessing the situation in person didn't do much to allay my fears. On one end of the trailer (the bathroom end, natch), the floor was almost completely black, with speckles heading up the framed wall where the water had splashed. At least half of the floor was destroyed.

Google didn't help much, either, with conflicting information, pitches to sell products, and information about how to clean the mold from nearly every material but wood. So, as usual, I reached out to crowdsource information on what to do. The first call was to my friend D.J. Moylan, a great handyman, who didn't seem terribly concerned. Of course, he pointed out, if I stayed in Colorado, I would have nothing to worry about. But I'm not going to be here, at least all the time, and I was plenty worried.

Next I reached out to my friend Jenna Goldspoon, a former Denverite recently transplanted to Washington D.C. who works for FEMA. Sure enough, there were a couple of helpful government publications, from both FEMA and the EPA that she sent me, and I started to breathe a little easier.

But it wasn't until talking to my friend Trash Trashisfree about the mold-infested home he had re-habbed that I got a true gameplan. After reading all the publications Jenna sent and finding a decent abatement spray back at Home Depot, a random visit with Trash provided the final touch: a primer he swore by called Zinser BNS that could encapsulate the remainder of the mold after it had been killed, neutralized and scrubbed -- because all it takes is one spore, really.

It wasn't until this past weekend, however, that we got around to actually doing all of this. In order to move forward on anything in the interior, including the stairs, it was important to make sure our foundation was ready, and procrastinating on this unpleasant task was clearly no longer possible. So Victoria Salvador, Tony Bearzi , Ken Walters and I cut new pieces of plywood flooring to replace the worst portions (after two trips to Home Depot, since on the first one I bought the wrong thickness, something the smart alec in the orange apron made sure to mock me for), sprayed and scrubbed the rest, and painted the primer onto the 2 x 4's that had received the splashback. What I thought might have doomed my new home before I even slept in it for a night was mitigated with friends and eighty bucks in one afternoon.

Problem solved.

The Mayday Experiment: Attack of the Killer Mold

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.




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