The Mayday Experiment: A Step Back to Go Forward

When Philip Spangler and I were trying to figure out how to fit a set of stairs onto a 20’ trailer, our original design required some accommodations. The shorter a set of stairs are, the higher the rise – and the harder to climb. With my bad knees thanks to barrel-racing horses as a kid (horses falling on you and whacking your knees into oil drums tend to take a toll), I didn’t want to rely on a ladder, but neither did I want to have to take gargantuan, giant-sized steps in order to get to bed.

We laid it out a hundred different ways, and still, the best we were coming up with was a 14” rise. For comparison: If you are building stairs up to code, the rise is 4” to 7”, and anyone who has climbed a set of wonky stairs knows the discomfort created by strangely spaced steps. But Phil had an idea: Make a cut-away in the loft (which we were just about to build) that would create an inset, giving us a longer slope within which to space the steps. By setting the steps in a foot, we could get it down to twelve inches, and after some initial tests stepping up on things, we decided to go with it.

But still, I worried about that twelve-inch rise. I “practiced” stepping up on crates, feeling the pinch under my kneecap and wondering how many years that might be tolerable. I figured I wouldn’t be climbing the stairs many times a day, so it wouldn’t be a big deal — but I also worried about the space the long flight of steps took up, and how they defined the space.

Having the long steps there didn't leave many options for furniture placement, and a whole foot of space was lost on one side of the kitchen. But we left a large box that a future pellet stove could fit inside, and every bit of the stairs became storage, so I figured I could live with the “hallway” feeling it would give.

But everything changed when I discovered a better stove and began rethinking its placement. After learning from Victoria Salvador that the stovepipe would be safer if run through the roof (rather than through the side of the house with a bend in it, as I had planned), it was clear the stairs were a bad idea. So Victoria and I cut them out, redesigned and built new stairs that we were ready to install.

But first, we had to address the one-foot inset that Philip and I had created earlier. It would be easy – just fitting in a box, right?

Our first attempt at this was thwarted by a host of problems, not the least of which were my worn-out saw blades and the used lumber that split, leaving us frustrated. After new saw blades were ordered and installed, we were ready to give it another shot.

This time, aside from an initial problem getting the arbor loose on the chop-saw (a case of Phil “man-tightening" it that Victoria and I struggled to rectify), things were going smoothly. With careful pre-drilling and countersinking, we were able to coax the warped 2” x 6” boards into the properly measured rectangle. But despite the measuring, it was a tight fit — so the process required several rounds of taking it into the tiny house, attempting to force it into place, and then sanding it down on the sidewalk outside before we got it to fit snugly, but perfectly.

Drills, screws and clamps in hand, we were finally ready to replace the chunk of floor that had been deliberately left out. With both of us standing on step stools, we carefully slid it into place, clamped it and got ready to screw it into place.

And then it slipped and got stuck. And slipped again. Although the procedure seemed like an easy thing, to get this wooden box to stay where we placed it, the height left us with the option of teetering on step stools or holding our arms over our heads — neither of which were providing stability.

Finally, in frustration, after wiggling it and pushing it and banging it with my fist, I decided to just wedge it into place, and in frustration I smacked the bottom with a rubber mallet. Except I didn’t just smack the bottom: I pinched the skin of my thumb and suddenly saw stars, just like a cartoon character with an Acme hammer.

After mopping up the blood and catching my breath (it hurt bad enough to make me dizzy for a minute), I swapped places with Victoria and held the thing from below while she leveled it and we screwed it into place. Which, amazingly, went without incident (unless you count the metal clamp that came loose and whacked me on the head).

It isn’t perfect, and it isn’t pretty, but for something that turned out to be surprisingly complicated, at least we can say it is done! The imperfections will all be hidden — even the spot of my blood that remains on the warped wood.

Blood, sweat AND tears: This tiny house has ’em all.  

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