Art

The Mayday Experiment: Time for Plans!

I was never very good at math.

I blame Mrs. Mercer, my second-grade teacher at Foothills Elementary School, who told me that “boys are good at math and girls are good at English.” It was like a pass for giving up, which is just what I did. And I take no pleasure in saying this – as a proud feminist, this makes me feel just like “Math-is-hard” Barbie. But it’s the truth.

But building a house – even a tiny house – requires math. Not only financial math, but down and dirty math: the kind I swore by eighth grade I would never ever use. That math. The kind of math that lets you draw up plans and figure out solar loads. Which is precisely why I have been dragging my feet on this one major task: drawing up plans. But it was getting to the point that it was way past time.

Luckily for me, my friend Victoria Salvador had no Mrs. Mercer in her young life, discouraging her from a future in architecture – so at long last, we have real elevations! We may have come to it backwards, but having someone involved in the project who actually knows what they’re doing is causing me to breathe a sigh of relief.

Philip Spangler and I had approached the design of this house as old-school sculptors would: not making it first in a 3-D modeling program or AutoCAD, but with our hands and pencils. This most likely led to more mistakes, but since we had a pile of 2 x 4s from an auction, we could afford to be a little reckless. We sketched rough ideas on tissue paper and pinned it to the wall, and eventually we just cleared a big space in the middle of my studio floor and started laying 2 x 4s on the ground, like a life-size drawing in lumber. We paced roof lines and laid on the floor to feel the scale in comparison to our bodies. Then we sketched some more.

Eventually, the shape of the house began to emerge. Wanting enough head room for climbing the stairs into the loft without bumping my head, and enough roof slope for rainwater to be collected, we opted for a more aerodynamic design for driving, with a slanted roof in front and a clean, modern silhouette — almost like a ranch — from the side. Many tiny house designs include dormers, or A-frame-style peaked roofs, but those made no sense to me. I wanted it to feel as airy inside as possible, and cluttering the outside with extra trim seemed excessive on a small structure, especially when considering the scale. Just like the desire to simplify my life, I wanted to simplify my tiny house.

But that said, this is more than a house to me: It’s a work of art, and a component in a larger project. So it needs to be distinctive, both architecturally and in the treatment of the siding. And because I’m an artist, I tend to overthink things and approach them from a conceptual angle. The siding needed to tell a story, and it needed to be aesthetic. It needed to look like nothing else.

It also, like everything else in this project, needed to be cheap. Recycled is a bonus. And free? Even better.

One of the very first things I acquired for the tiny house was completely by chance at the beginning of last summer. Djuna was closing its warehouse, and on the last day, the beleaguered store employee who had been tasked with emptying it out was extremely generous. When I asked what was happening to the stack of antique barnwood in the corner, I was told if I could move it, I could have it.

Move it I did, every dusty, crumbling stick. Petrified poop and all. Clearly the remains of an old barn from the aforementioned poop, there were still cracked bits of faded red paint on some of the wood — recalling the classic, charming red barn on the hill — and many of the boards were rough-hewn, showing the arc of backbreaking labor from a hand-saw, lengthwise, each groove a mark of past sweat from men who were probably dead by now. It was perfect.

And yet, despite being perfect from an aesthetic point of view, most of it wasn’t quite usable. So two weeks ago, we finally went through the pile, piece by piece. We cut off the rotten bits and assessed the lengthwise cracks, pulled out the warped boards and took measurements of everything else.  remainder was left in the alley for some lucky Craigslister and was gone within a day, despite my desires to hoard it for projects.

I also wanted to include something from my past in the design of the outside, and I had the perfect symbol: the remains of the former mural that was on the front of my business on Santa Fe, the Capsule Art and Event Center. Since that moniker was prominently displayed on the center of the mural, only four parts of it wound up on the wall outside on my current studio, making it a landmark for geotagging, from what phone-wielding passers-by have informed me.

The mural was created in 2009 by Shitty Kitten and Scot LeFavor, over the course of a First Friday and Saturday. When the building that had housed Capsule was scheduled  to be torn down, I desperately wanted to save it, and I hunted down the construction foreman, who assured me that he would be careful and call to let me know when it was down.  Though he was true to his word, someone else (ahem…I know who you are, now) got there first and stole it. I was heartbroken. Yet just as mysteriously as it disappeared, I got a call two years later that it had returned to the alley behind what was left of my former space, where Boxcar Gallery was now. My former assistant, Sarah Quinlan, had called to let me know it was left there, and I raced down there in my truck to load it up and cart it to my garage, despite the fact that I was also in the process of moving to Ohio for grad school…in TWO DAYS.

So a couple of Saturdays ago, Victoria Salvador, Meredith Bowdish, Tony Bearzi and I cut up part of the mural into long strips in preparation for it becoming part of the exterior of my house; we also sorted through the old barnwood. Between the two, we could get an idea of the linear feet needed for the rest.

The rest, of course, being lumber that I must source now. The mural dictated the width of the boards – 8” – and the depth, ½”. The remaining lumber will be treated with a process called Shou Sugi Ban, a Japanese method of burning wet wood that both seals it from moisture and makes it repellent to bugs. It is also one of the most environmentally friendly methods of treating wood, as well as hauntingly beautiful. 

So now we work out the plans. I am currently playing with the design for the siding – a staggered zig-zag that has the strips of mural at the top, the barnwood in between, and the shou sugi ban at the bottom, creating a natural gradation from black to gray to color. The design is suggestive of hope springing from darkness, of light towards the dawn. And not only will it be beautiful, but there won’t be another tiny house like it. Anywhere.

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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Lauri Lynnxe Murphy