The Mayday Experiment: Water Finds Its Way

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Water always finds a way.

In planning the tiny house, there have been so many conversations about water. Not only rainwater as a force of good – providing showers and drinking water – but rainwater as a destructive force, winnowing through every narrow channel and path. This is why there is no window on the front of the tiny house – because water, pushed at the velocity of highway speeds (even the slow ones at which I will be traveling), will force its way into every crack, and with a window, there are a lot more of them.

At the beginning of winter, the tiny house was sealed up pretty tight. Even the opening for the skylight, though not yet holding the already obtained skylight it was built for (a step that happens after the roof is on) had been sealed with two pieces of plywood. Everything stayed completely dry.
But plywood leaks. And it delaminates and splits apart. And it is not terribly weather resistant. So despite the fact that Colorado had a pretty mild winter for the most part, there’s damage to repair before we put on the EPDM. And last week, when I opened the door in the rain, I saw it pouring in through the skylight and every crack, like a waterfall, wetting our freshly de-molded floor. Luckily, with the high desert’s legendary lack of humidity, it has dried out and no trace of further problems are visible. But it is extra wear, and I worry about invisible problems rearing their head later, as they often do.

And just as a solitary drop of water will find its way through any channel or path, so does Mother Nature frequently remind us of how that single drop of water can be an awesome force.  

I got a pretty awful reminder this week. But not in the tiny house; in the warehouse. Thanks to one of those invisible problems.

While I’ve been building the tiny house, I’ve been living in my studio, a former garage in the Whittier neighborhood. I moved into this garage when my business, Capsule, closed, during which time I was preparing my new space. After a couple months of disgusting work reclaiming it with my friend Justin Simoni, we were finally ready to move in. Wearing rubber boots and soggy hoodies, we scraped inches of foul grease from the concrete floors, power-washing and scrubbing them repeatedly until the place was a swamp, and then sealed them with marine varnish, which made them beautiful and shiny for the first year, at least. We mopped the exhaust-stained walls with degreasers just to get the paint to stick. We tore down an inexplicable wall built of waterbed headboards, windows and carpet, and cleared out the smelly man-nest in the closet, where someone had clearly been napping regularly. It’s been my studio ever since, a lucky stretch of almost eight years with over a dozen studio-mates who’ve come and gone, with a lot of good times had.  In the early days the wide flat roof was leaky, and my landlord did his level best to address it with a motley assortment of roofers. And at the end of one day addressing it five years ago, they replaced the chunk of roof they had removed without sealing it, intending to return the next day and finish the job. That time, water found its way when my neighbor watered his rooftop garden.

I headed to the studio the next morning to be in my happy place. It was my birthday, and my father had just died that morning. Not knowing what to do in my grief (going to his bedside didn’t feel like an option after a week of my step-monster yelling at me), I stumbled to the place that felt like home. But that day, it sure didn’t look like home: It was a flooded, unrecognizable mess. My studio-mate was sweeping bucket-fulls of water towards the door. The ceiling had caved in and covered my work table, destroying all my work in progress and several things on the wall. It was a disaster.

My landlord, generally a stand-up guy, covered the damage, but the psychic damage of all that loss in one day lingered. Luckily, however, the leaking didn’t, and for all those years, it’s been pretty dry…until this week.

This week, water found its way yet again. Through a hole that lingered through the winter after the most inept handyman in the world YouTubed his way through the installation of a swamp cooler ordered in May and finally installed in August, for a whole two weeks of coolness before fall. I had made my way through the sweaty summer, while he took job after job aside from mine, by building a couple of 5-gallon bucket DIY air-coolers: just add ice. Two hundred dollars worth of ice and another $1,200 over the installation bid, an actual professional was called in and several screaming matches later, I had my cool air without any more ice runs to the bodega. And I thought we were done with it.

Until this week’s wet, heavy spring snow, snapping branches and finding leaks, finally revealed this one. Ten feet over from the swamp cooler, a drip started…and in two hours time became a flood. Drywall tape and chunks of ceiling fell with soggy periodic slaps. Every trash receptacle, bucket and watering can filled with stinky brown water at a rate more akin to a faucet than a drip.

After a fitful night of half-sleeping on the couch and waking up to paint bubbles opening and spewing their contents in a rush and odd creaking noises that made me very worried, I finally crawled into bed to try to sleep for two hours. I woke up to my alarm at 8 a.m., and went to inspect the damage.
The main portion of my studio, dry when I had slept two hours before, was a soggy mess, as opposed to the regular mess it had been the night before. The leak had spread across the entire sixty-foot expanse of ceiling, narrowly missing (thankfully!) my digital microscope, wetting the corner of my industrial sewing machine (but again, thankfully!) not hitting the mechanisms that would surely rust. Boxes of soggy, formerly cool vintage paper that I had hoarded for years to use in my work was destroyed. The water had collected as new leaks had opened up and seeped under the wood pile in a little stream, dooming the bottom layer of 2 x 4’s and 2’ x 8’s that were slated to build the wall of the tiny house. The expensive furniture-grade plywood that Philip and I had fought so mightily over, intended for the rest of the half-built stairs, sat in a puddle, soaking up and wrecking the edge, although only an inch.
It could have been much, much worse. And after a couple of hours moving crap, spreading tarps and assessing the damage, I realized how crucial this upcoming roofing job was to get right. In a warehouse, you can move things out of the way and retreat to another corner. But in a tiny house? There’s no out of the way, and there’s no retreat: one small leak could be catastrophic.

After an urgent call, my landlord came over the next morning with a crew of roofers, who confirmed how the leak began: last summer’s incompetent bungler. Three guys with shovels and brooms cleared the roof of the melting snow and ended the internal downpour. I swept the water out and set up an industrial blower to dry out what remained. The hole was fixed and life began to return to normal, though I have a lot of work to do putting my studio back together.

It’s a small loss, but in a small, struggling budget, a small loss feels huge. I’ve had quite a few setbacks lately, and this one is a doozy. But just like water: I will find a way.  

Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging about 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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