The Mayday Experiment: Tiny House, Big Disaster!

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After returning from its journey to City, O' City for a fundraiser last week (thank you to all who came and contributed!), the tiny house still needed to be leveled so that we could install the windows -- a task that requires, as much as possible, a level house. I was excited to finally close off the space and make it more weather-proof, the windows were a big step. I couldn't wait to get started. See also: The Mayday Experiment -- Tiny House, Big Community We've been building the tiny house in the driveway in front of my studio -- really, just the space between the sidewalk and the street, but it slopes to the garage door, so technically speaking it's my "driveway." The initial plan was to build in the parking space behind my studio, down the alley, but not only was that a nightmare to get in and out of with the truck, we discovered the power lines were way too low. So while Philip Spangler and I had started out back, there were many reasons it made sense to move the project out front, to a more public location.

My friend Victoria Salvador, an architect who now specializes in tiny businesses, has been helping with the tiny house build since Philip's departure. Victoria has one of the most interesting backgrounds of anyone I know: After adult asthma caused her to change her course from Air Force officer training for astrophysics to artist, she got her degree in architecture while making artist trading cards and being a general, all-around badass. We hadn't been in touch as often since she moved to Alaska to help build the Fairbanks International Airport (work for which she received an AIA award -- but since she'd left the firm, her name wasn't mentioned), so I was surprised to find out when she messaged me on Facebook that her new business was exactly in line with my path now, too: building tiny businesses. I gobbled up her offer for help like a starving animal thrown a meaty bone, especially after finding out that her specific area of interest was in sustainable systems, the exact thing I have been finding extra-baffling to figure out. Having her help is an invaluable gift!

Leveling the tiny house is a backbreaking job, and something I will have to streamline when I'm on my own and can't convince my poor friends to help me, whether through obtaining hydraulic jacks or outfitting a drill for the task. Given the relatively steep slope of the short driveway, for the majority of the time the tiny house has been hovering slightly above the ground -- by nearly a foot on the street side. When Philip was still here, we had purchased four scissor jacks from Harbor Freight, each rated to lift 5,000 pounds. We customized them, welding U-channels to the top that the trailer would rest in, and a wide plate on the bottom so it wouldn't sink into the dirt. So far, they'd been working out fine.

Cranking up the jacks with Tiny's full weight on them is arduous, and we took turns -- my friend Tanya Coen and I doubling our hands on the crank and turning it together, although my BFF and workout buddy Ukulele Loki was able to manage it on his own. After getting the street side leveled, we moved the level to the other window-sill and started raising the opposite side.

The bubble hovered near the line of the level. Victoria thought it was good enough but dear Loki, being a perfectionist, kept going, just a couple more cranks. And suddenly, before we knew what was happening, we heard a groan and the house shifted towards the street, toppling sideways. We all jumped back -- while I expected it to keep going, it fell to rest on the tires about half a foot closer to the street. When we regained our breath, we realized that one of the jacks had slipped, and now two of them were jammed under the trailer, bent at unnatural angles and even bending the metal bracket under the trailer that had formerly held the ramps. Disaster. Thankfully, no one was hurt, and Loki's perfectionism most likely prevented that -- had we gone inside the house while it was so unstable and it had fallen then, there would surely have been injuries.

But now how would we get the jacks out from under the house? They were wedged in and bent, non-functional,; on the street side, even the crank was bent and jammed into the concrete. We caught our breath from the dramatic event and pondered what to do. I snapped pics and texted them to Philip, who called from Chicago immediately -- not that he could do much to help besides commiserating.

With two good jacks and two jacks jammed beneath the trailer, we carefully lifted the trailer just enough to remove the destroyed jacks. (It remains to be seen if they will be returnable to Harbor Freight...given that they failed in a spectacularly dangerous way, I'm hopeful, though modifying them may have voided any warranty.) We wouldn't be able to level it with only two jacks, so windows were out, but we could still put flashing on the windows in preparation.

While Victoria and I prepared the first window, Tanya climbed inside to work on the other side -- and on her first step the house lurched backwards. We had forgotten to secure the front post! Instinctively, Victoria lunged forward and grabbed the window, though she wouldn't have been able to do a thing to stop the house from moving. Tanya carefully exited, and we all gathered to examine the scrape on Victoria's arm. (Later that night her husband, Nicholas, in a sweet fit of concern, disinfected her cuts and wrapped her wrist in a white bandage -- prompting her friends at the club that night to wonder if she'd had a suicide attempt.) For a day filled with mishaps, it was a miracle there was only one minor injury.

But the mishaps weren't over yet. While we lowered the front post to stabilize the house, the post slipped off the wood as it finally succumbed to months of weather and cracked in half. While holding it (and conversely, the trailer) in place, I frantically directed everyone towards where they could find scraps for a replacement. Finally, the trailer was secure...in other words, exactly where we'd started three hours earlier.

Things always take longer and cost more than you anticipate. Despite my disappointment over not installing a single window, there is still value in lessons learned, and I was proud that at least all the window openings were flashed and ready for their future destiny of embracing a window. Next week.

Two steps forward, one step back. Again.

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, will be 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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