The Mayday Experiment: Scratching the Surface

For me, designing things is a two-steps-forward, one-step-back cha-cha-cha. The interior of the tiny house has been redesigned multiple times as I think through what I really want. And even when the stairs were half built, I still decided to cut them out, build out the loft and go a different, more compact route.

One of the things that has really had me stuck, however, is the siding. Early on, I grew enchanted with the process of shou sugi ban, a Japanese method of treating wood with fire that leaves it impervious to moisture and unattractive to bugs while imparting a beautiful, charcoal surface. And what could be more fun than going after a pallet full of cedar siding with a flamethrower?

Fun, but also somewhat dangerous, especially if done in the only outdoor space I have available: the busy sidewalk between my studio and the tiny house, which has made the process never feel like a remotely good idea. So I have been stuck on practical considerations, attempting to figure out just where we could burn a pallet full of wood in a methodical way, all while somehow storing it in a place that prevents it from getting wet and warping before it hits the outside of my walls.

All winter, I fretted as I walked by the Typar-clad tiny house, marked by painted-over graffiti and starting to sag a little, though at least Victoria Salvador thought to perform the due diligence of calling the manufacturer, who assured us that it could take seven years of exposure — though the thought of seven years fills me with grim dread and determination. No way can we take THAT long. Putting all the siding on would be a big job, and with over 400 square feet of surface to cover, it would need to be done quickly, as storage would quickly become a concern. If I were to order the siding, could we count on a stretch of decent, dry weather through the winter to do it? I explored indoor options in friends’ giant garages and considered hunting down a vacant lot to rent, but then where would I store the lumber? This was the first time that my somewhat inadequate building conditions became a true hurdle.

Victoria and I returned to this discussion often, and fretted over structural considerations as well. Since my tiny house will travel, often to wetter climates than the high desert of Colorado’s Front Range, Victoria suggested a rain screen – creating a baffle of air by lifting the siding off of the plywood-wrapped house underneath, in order to allow water to drain. Though this is a common approach in wetter climes like the Pacific Northwest, it is unusual in dry Colorado, which means the materials to do it are, as well. There are a variety of ways to do this — from simple wood furring strips to a stiff extruded nylon mat that rests like a tangle beneath the outer layer — but not all companies will sell a small enough quantity for a tiny house, and since it’s important to me that it have recycled content, we’re still researching.

As an artist, I think aesthetics are everything, and though I had long ago sketched plans that included the mural from my old business and the shou sugi ban treatment, I felt stuck – both for the aforementioned practical reasons, and because I wanted the house itself to be art…. And the design, though simple and elegant, felt boring to me.

A trip to the Denver Home Show clinched it for me, as I fell in love with the exterior of one house clad in Cor-Ten steel. This specific steel develops a beautiful patina as it ages, deepening to a rich orange-red as it continues to rust through the years. It’s the main material of sculptor Richard Serra, whose Tilted Arcs and bisecting spaces create mammoth planes of the rich, beautiful material. I never really considered it as an option, even though I ogle a house in my neighborhood clad in it every time I drive by, because I thought the weight would be extreme…but seeing the exterior at the Denver Home Show made me realize that the thin, rolled sheets would actually weigh less than wood, helping us stay under 10,000 pounds for the trailer’s rating.

So as Victoria and I sat around, discussing for the umpteenth time what to do about the siding problem, we decided to figure out how much Cor-Ten steel would cost…because why not? Maybe it was possible? But with a total coming in at around $11,000, it suddenly became the worst idea ever.

After a year of pondering whether board and batten would be better than a ship-lap joint or whether it would be preferable to have the siding run vertically or horizontally, Victoria said the magic words: “You know the siding could just be anything, right? As long as you have the rain screen…you could really use anything you wanted.”

My eyes widened. "Anything”?

“Yup,” came the response. "Anything.” 

And suddenly, worlds became possible. For a sculptor, “anything” is a pretty big, exciting place, and one I knew how to work in. At the beginning of building this house, my mistake was approaching it like a work of art and thus underestimating the time and expense it would take. But now the mistake was not realizing where it could really be a work of art, and I could approach it as organically as I would any other sculpture, feeling it out and building it as I go. I could dream as big as I wanted here, and nothing was really off limits, unless for durability’s sake.

That night, as I tried to fall asleep with possibilities, shapes and designs floating through my head, it hit me: Nothing made sense but a honeycomb pattern. Part of the tiny house's planned journeys is to visit apiaries to continue working with honeybees to create sculptures, so this seemed the perfect pattern to exemplify my mission. I got up and hurriedly sketched out a mock-up so I could fall asleep, then spent the next day obsessively drawing out and playing with a design until I decided what looked right. Each octagon of the honeycomb will be a different material, with siding filling in some areas, winding up looking like a quilt.

And if the materials could truly be anything, then it only made sense for them to be recycled, which leads to the most exciting part of making a sculpture: the hunt for stuff. My intention is to treat this like a collage, weaving together everything from antique ceiling tiles to can lids to old signage. (To that end: suggestions and donations of your old materials are welcome — anything from old license plates to tin can lids!)

In Denver, that had to mean contacting my old friend Tom Kirk, who has been repurposing boxcars and stripping bowling alleys of floors for many years. Tom and I first met in our early twenties at Queen City Salvage, where he worked and sold me cool parts of buildings and old signs that I still have today. His most legendary score was to oversee the emptying out of legendary Denver hoarder Joe Replin’s half-century stash in the Buerger Brothers building, which continually shows up in the work of many Denver artists, including mine. Buerger Brothers was a cosmetics company that stopped production in WWII because of rationing, and decades later the manufacturing section on the top floor looked as if everyone had just walked away, leaving it to the pigeons and spiders — until Joe Replin filled it with old office supplies and Army-surplus scores until he simply wasn’t able to stuff anything else in.

After the Tom Kirk clean-out, the beautiful art deco building on Champa was transformed into lofts.

Tom’s lot in RiNo was unusually empty this week, but poking around yielded some treasures: part of a Little Caesars billboard, with its glistening airbrushed pizza; a scratched piece of metal; and, absurdly, even a hard hat with my last name on it, which I proudly wore for the rest of the day. Then Tom dragged out a sample of something we could order: lap-jointed snow fence that was joined into panels backed with lauan sheets: about the simplest installation possible, affordable enough to do, and absolutely beautiful, with a silvery, worn finish.
Sometimes the only way to get over a hurdle in a big project is to take a fresh look at all possibilities on the table. The new plan is not only doable in the space I already have without catching anything on fire or terrifying my neighbors with a flamethrower, but it’s also largely doable by me on my own, a little at a time, as we move forward over the next couple of months with the electrical plans and installation, completion of the parapet gutter, and building a shed on the tongue. The hunt is on, and it’s anyone’s guess what I’ll find, but that’s the exciting part. 

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is writing about her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on every other week.  If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here or here. See more of her work at

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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy