Arts and Culture

The Mayday Experiment: Of Trailers and Hardware

My friend Philip Spangler has been here almost three months and is staying one more week, sleeping on a futon in my living room and working on the house every day. By the end of the week the goal is to have a fully-clad, Tyvek-wrapped box with a loft and stairs - and I'll have to do the rest on my own without him, a scary proposition! This summer's rain — something I told my Ohio born-and-bred friend was a rarity here in the high desert — has impacted us again and again, making our progress forward halting and slow. However, bad decisions have held us back, too: most notably our choice of a trailer.

Stupidly, I figured I would just find a trailer on Craigslist or go to the trailer store — that's a thing, right? Even though I had made cursory explorations through Craigslist's reams of purple links (and found many trailers that in hindsight I should have bought), I somehow had the idea in my head that this part was easy, and I'd just wait until Phil was here and grab a trailer. Big mistake.

See also: The Mayday Experiment: A Tiny House Inspires Big Conversations

"I've been in the trailer business 22 years, and I've never seen anything like it," a grizzled trailer salesman explained. "There's a housing boom, I just can't keep 'em in stock. And I'm sure Burning Man doesn't help, either." After a week of searching, I finally reached out on Facebook for help, and a friend posted a link to a place in Fort Collins where we were able to get a 20-foot deck-between trailer, albeit a dovetail. Despite the warnings of every tiny house website and video, we figured we could make a dovetail work — and we didn't want to wait a week for an ordered trailer to come into stock, right?

That damned hindsight. We were wrong, although not tragically so, but we wound up swapping a one-week wait for three weeks of welding, grinding and reworking to make the dovetail — angled at the back so that a car to easily drive on to it — into a flat bed. Once we had it, we drove the trailer to Lakewood and worked at my friend John Haley III's metal shop, welding tabs to the side to extend the width to what is legally allowable and putting a ledge on the back that flattened out the tilt of the unnecessary dovetail.

Hindsight also changed our wants and needs, and quickly. While we had specifically searched for a trailer with a nice wood deck, thinking it would be easier to attach the house to, we soon realized that none of the walls would touch it, anyway, if we were to maximize the width. And the heavy treated 20-foot planks added a lot of weight without much benefit. It was better to have insulation, so we removed them and made a sort of sandwich: sheet metal as a moisture barrier from splash-up on the road, a few planks of decking with Styrofoam in between for insulation, then the wood frame for our floor with more Styrofoam embedded within it. While Styrofoam wouldn't have been my first choice for a "green" building material, in the end, it was a choice influenced by R value (i.e., retention of heat and thus energy savings), cost and availability.

Had we custom-ordered a trailer, we would have saved both money and time (although it also required a six-week lead time, which wasn't an option given Phil's schedule) — but then I wouldn't have visited the scrap yard. Atlas Metals, down near the tracks in a part of Denver that is only visited by the cheapest Auraria students looking for parking and giant trucks, accepts scrap metal by the pound for recycling. I had been there before as a student - but then only to pick up things, not leave behind the random pile of scraps and pieces that had to be cut from the trailer to accommodate the house's full length. Every file cabinet found in an alley or shopping cart full of aluminum cans winds up in this lot, a place unfamiliar to most Denverites.

And a place largely devoid of women, except in the clean, low-ceilinged office, where smiling clerks give you a slip of paper that, when fed into the ATM outside, gives you whatever amount you've earned for your scrap. Driving onto the lot, I felt myself in a completely other world, a world where burly men pitch twisted scraps of metal onto piles, which are then sorted by type into more beautiful piles. Like many artists, I have an overwhelming visual compulsion, and though stopping to take pictures would mark me as a tourist even more than my gender did, it would also gum up the smoothly moving works and appear incredibly rude. Nevertheless, I was dying for my camera from the moment I drove onto the scale for the initial weight until I made it back to the office, where the only other women on the lot seemed to reside.

After driving onto the lot, you back up to a mountain of assorted metal — as opposed to already sorted metal — and empty out your truck. Given that I had gone alone, this meant wrestling heavy chunks of metal off the truck and onto the pile, all while avoiding several gigantic men who were chucking pieces of refrigerator as if they were as light as popcorn. I managed to only drop one thing on my foot, and my labor netted me $26.12, or approximately once-sixth of the cost of the bolts we bought later that day. That's right: $120 for bolts. In one fell swoop. And while you would think that might net you a lot of bolts, it wasn't the quantity that accounted for the cost, but the size and quality: ½" wide by 8" long and stainless steel. Hardware, it turns out, is damned expensive, and of course the thing everyone always forgets about when budgeting. I had certainly not budgeted $120 for bolts!

But, as Philip pointed out, they were holding the entire house to the trailer. While the average RV has only eight bolts holding the chassis to the trailer, the average RV is aluminum and meant for temporary living, and we were building this with wood. And unlike other tiny houses, mine was going to be moving. A lot. And moving causes stress, especially on 2 x 4s.

I tend to have expensive tastes in liquor, preferring a local distillery and a fancy mixed drink, and Philip is a dyed-in-the-wool PBR man. But when it came to hardware, my beer budget was definitely shocked by his champagne tastes, and many of our arguments in this process came from my incredulity over what he thought we needed next. Throughout this process, I've accused Phil of overdesigning a number of times — but secretly, I've been thankful: He is building this baby like a tank. I know it's my safety that concerns him, and luckily he's far more practical than I am in this regard (as evidenced by this whole crazy plan in the first place). But, like most people who undertake crazy plans, I got tripped up not by a big obstacle, but by the small stuff: Hardware has been the thing that killed the budget. Those of us who don't regularly build houses don't realize that a $98 bucket of screws doesn't go that far. And we are still a lot of screws away from a house.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, will be blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy