You're Going To Build A What?

The saga of J building his tiny off-grid house

Archive for the ‘Construction’ tag

Quick update.

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Not much happening of late, work’s busy as is the rest of life. Weekends are solidly booked over the next month or two with little work being done on the project. However, the wombling has offered up a couple of new items. One is some cork floor tiles which should be enough to do the kitchen and bathroom area and give a warm feel underfoot, plus some old floorboards which I’ll plane down and might be enough to do the living area. I also have a pack of wooden parquet floor tiles which should be enough to go under the area where the woodburner will be and make clean up a bit easier. That should be all the flooring apart from the loft.

I also should be picking up a solar hot water panel I’ve been offered by a member of an alternative energy forum I’m on. I’m not going to plumb this in directly to the house, as that would need a pump and storage cylinder and would have to go on the roof making plumbing more complex. Instead I’m going to connect a water tank to the top of the panel and run it as a thermosyphon system on a frame outside. I can then just run a couple of pipes to valves in the side of the house which connect it to the water system. The plan is that when it’s warm enough I just turn the valves and the water enters the system before the gas water heater, preheating it and reducing gas usage. In the summer I may not need to use the gas at all. When it’s cold and not getting much sun I can just close the valves and isolate it. We’ll see how that works when I have it and can test it.

Hoping to get over and do some work on the trailer on Monday. Have decided not to go away as planned in July and take the week to work solidly on the house. If I can get the trailer sorted before then I might be able to get the walls and even the roof framing done with a little help and some good weather. Can’t wait to start on that, it’s when it really begins to look like a house.



Written by justin

May 29th, 2009 at 2:41 pm

Two steps forward, one step back.

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It’s been a very busy couple of weeks here, but there’s less progress than I’d hoped there would be. Let’s start with the good news, my Ebay-fu is still rocking. The recent purchases are as follows:

Shower door: £10.50

I nipped up to oxford to collect this last week, only took 45 mins to get there and also allowed me to drop in on some friends who lived nearby for a quick cuppa and a chance to catch up. The door just needs a clean and the frame just needs the silicon sealant removing and it’ll be perfect.

Chimney Flue: £228

Now this comprises of 6 sections of double-walled, insulated, stainless-steel flue, plus the cap and a couple of 45degree bends. Each section is about a meter long and in the shops would cost around £100 each, so that’s £700-worth of flue. Found a courier company to pick them up from Kendal and bring them down to London for £30. Bargain. Just need a bit of a polish and they’ll be as good as new.


Kitchen Sink: £26

Another Ebay bargain, this is a Kohler sink, brand new, still in it’s box and which retails for £285. I was actually bidding on another, identical looking, sink but which in actual fact was smaller. That went beyond my set budget (£30) so I started bidding on, and ultimately won, this one. It wasn’t till I picked it up that I realised it was a chunk bigger, as the seller had used the same photo for both and just changed the size in the description. Still, although it’s a bit bigger than planned, it’s a really solid sink for an absolute steal and, in emergencies, I can use it as a bath.


Construction was planned for a bit of a boost this week as I took delivery of a mig welder to repair the trailer. Once again bought from Ebay for the bargain price of £136. It’s a bit rough around the edges and, when we plugged it in, it decided not to feed wire out. Opening it up and blasting away years of dust and assorted crud with the air blaster and winding off the first couple of layers of rusty wire soon had it running smoothly.



We spent a morning chasing around to find some gas for it, turns out you need an account with BOC to buy gas, as you have to rent the bottles from them and that’s about £60/year plus the cost of the gas. Found a place that does it’s own bottles and for £103 picked up a big bottle of Argoshield gas, got three years rental on the bottle included and can swap out for gas at £20 a fill for the next 3 years any time I want. Nice.

It’s a big beast of a welder and you can’t run it at full power off a 13A plug but it seemed to be fine at lower power so my brother Nicky sat me down and taught me the basics of welding. I had some offcuts of steel from the trailer sides that we’d removed so we cleaned a couple of those up and got stuck in. It’s fun, I’m going ot enjoy doing more of that and you can see my efforts below. Need some more practice, but I think they’ll hold things together.


The next morning we were up bright and early to go and collect the steel pieces we’d ordered and then set up to cut out the bad sections and weld in the new. That’s when we discovered that the power was out to the garage where I’m running my extension from. There was no-one home to ask if we could check the breakers so that was that for the day. Nick had to leave at lunchtime so we decided to leave everything as it was. I’ve got plenty to be getting along with in the meantime such as practicing my welding, fixing some other bits of the trailer etc.I’m considering picking up a small generator off ebay (wherelse) so that I can guarantee having power in future.

We did measure everything out properly so that now I know exactly how big the house is going to be, where I’m running the framing out to and how wide I’m going to extend the house out to (just a little bit less than the wheel widths. I can now sit down and properly plan the framing. I may even start building some of the framing as individual panels, getting them nice and square and cladding them in OSB, this means I can effectively pre-fab them, store them and then put them up once the trailer’s done, it also means they’ll be straight, true and, hopefully, will go together quickly and without gaps.

Meanwhile, Nick has managed to sort a new job out this week and will be moving to Sheffield in a couple of week’s time. This means that instead of being in Ireland, he’s a couple of hours up the motorway and can come back down soon to oversee the cutting out of the trailer parts and do the main structural welding for me, something that makes me a lot happier about the longevity of my tiny house being towed around the place.

In hindsight, I should have bought a better, more expensive trailer. This has set back the building several weeks and added to the cost, something I could well do without. That said, I’m learning new skills and collecting new tools. I may sell the welder when it’s all finished to recoup some cost, or I may keep it and add it to my workshop. I said originally that this wasn’t about the end product, it wasn’t about building with the absolute minimum cost, it was much more about the ethos of building small, about learning new skills and the journey of actually building my own house. Some of these things are priceless, such as sitting with my brother and learning a new skill from him. I wouldn’t change a thing about what I’ve done so far.

Peace, out.

Written by justin

May 16th, 2009 at 1:33 pm

Now we’re seeing progress!

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It’s been a busy week on the tiny house project and there’s finally some visible progress being made. This is how the trailer looked before we started:


After a couple of days work, it now looks like this:

The boards are all off, it’s up on blocks, it’s been leveled so that there’s a plumb base to work from, the wheels are off, and most of the extraneous metal has  been removed. There’s certainly more work to be done on it, and it’s going to be a busy couple of weeks getting everything done that needs doing.

Brakes: No idea how these used to work, from what we could make out amongst the twisted metal rods, there’s no way they could have worked correctly. We’ve taken it all apart and sat and played with the bits and have a reasonable idea of how it should go together properly. I need to replace one of the brake rods and bend on of the brackets into shape. I think one bracket will need replacing as the pivot rod is too loose for it to pivot rather than swing. Given the weight of the final house, I’m paying rather close attention to getting the brakes working properly as the last thing I’d want when towing is to see the house overtaking me. The wheel hubs look reasonable although I’m going to strip them down and check the bearings, repack with grease, etc. There’s also 3 different sized tires amongst the 4 wheels, so they’re going to need to be replaced. I’ll probably just find a local scrap yard and pick up 4 new wheels and tires so that they all match properly. I imagine there’ll be new brake pads going in there too.

Suspension: I couldn’t find any makers information on the axle/suspension units. They look similar to Indespension ones, but there’s nothing to confirm what load they take. Need to do a bit of googling on this and find out more.

Frame. In general, the trailer frame’s in good shape. The main frame is box section steel, with heavy angle reinforcing members below. There are a couple of sections that have rusted where additional pieces have been added later, and it appears as though they’ve just been points where water has pooled and it’s rusted.This is the worst bit, there’s only a one this bad and a couple of small patches elsewhere.


Those will need to be cut out and new sections put in their place. I may also replace the front draw bar as there’s some rust where the wheel dolly was welded on badly. Nothing too serious so I’m going to hunt up some new steel stock and replace any sections that need it. My brother’s coming over in a couple of weeks and will weld it up properly while also teaching me how to do basic welding so I can weld together the folding porch, I just need to find a 180amp or so mig welder on ebay. Before then I need to sand down and paint the good bits of the frame, for which I’ve bought some rust treatment/undercoat paint, and will then top coat with hammerite.

Benjy came over, armed with his angle grinder (mine having gone missing somwehere) and we had a fun afternoon of removing excess metal from the trailer, consisting of the frame around the edge ( I need the trailer flat to be able to build the subfloor ) and the winch/winch mount from when the trailer was used for shifting cars and farm machinery in it’s former life.


There’s a bit of grinding to do so that the stubs are flat with the frame and some other small bits will need removing but those can wait until Nick comes over for the welding and I can pick his brain on how best to do them. I’ll put some more photos up next week as it’s often hard to describe what we’re doing or how lovely my workspace is, as you can see from John trying to explain what he’s been up to this week.


28 years we’ve known each other and it doesn’t take much of a harebrained idea to get us together in the sunshine playing with tools and implements of destruction. The weather was supposed to be bad all week but apart from a passing shower on one day we’ve been really lucky and it’s been fine, warm and sunny all week. It’s officially summer now, so here’s hoping the next few months continue in the same vein.


Written by justin

May 3rd, 2009 at 8:34 am

Let’s pretend I’m a Formula 1 pit crew….

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Of course, building/making anything is always an excuse to buy new toys tools and the tiny house is no exception. I generally have a pretty well equipped tool boxes (ok several toolboxes) up to and including a tablesaw, planer, jointer etc for my woodwork hobby, but this was something new. Aldi were selling a compressor and tools at rediculously cheap prices recently, and the thought of installing all the panelling, tongue and groove and cladding convinced me to pick one up. I have attachments for shot blasting which will help clean up the trailer prior to welding, spray guns for painting (and also for sealing the damaged solar panel) etc. But today’s best bit was putting the impact driver to use.

If you’ve ever watched Formula 1 racing, this is the tool they use to bolt the tires on and off. It makes an utterly awesome ‘whiiiiirrrrrrrrrrzzzzzzzzzzzzz’ sound, and I spent a few minutes playing with it and grinning. Then it was time to put it to work and it’s superb for getting rusted down nuts and bolts out, as you can see here,


where it was invaluable for getting the tow-hitch off the trailer frame. Today it’s the turn of my friend Benjy and his angle grinder, should be fun.

Toodle pip.

Written by justin

April 30th, 2009 at 10:13 am

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Caveat Emptor, indeed.

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When I bought the trailer for my tiny house, I was told it was weight rated at 2700kg. This was a little less than the 3500kg I’d prefer, but it was tough finding one of those second hand at a price I could afford, so I figured that I could build down to that weight if I was careful and was prepared to do things like drain water tanks and take out the big pile of batteries on what I hope will be the rare occasions that I move. It had been used as a farm trailer, towing machinery, landrovers, cars etc, and seemed strong enough, but didn’t have a plate on it. Some things you have to take on trust I guess.

Cleaning it up recently, I uncovered an old plaque on the trailer hitch you can see below.

trailer plate

trailer plate

Clearly stated, is the trailer hitch load limit of 1700kg. Damn. There’s no way that’s going to be enough. It does state that the weight limit is for a single axle trailer and I wondered if it would be double that for my twin axle trailer. So, I got on the phone to the manufacturer of the trailer coupling (there’s no trailer manufacturer plate) and had a chat with their technical bod who was very helpful. Turns out all their hitches share the same body, all the way up to the 3500kg model, the only difference is the draw tube inside and the damper outside. These can be replaced/upgraded for a moderate cost of £115, they’ll also give me a new plate for the uprated weight rating so it’s nice and legal.

That all seems fine and dandy, but supposes that the rest of the trailer is up to it. So, the next thing I’ve got to do is find out what the wheelhub/suspension units are rated for. If they’re up to the job and the rest of the trailer is strong enough, I can just swap out the hitch parts and I’m good to go. It’s a worrying ‘if’ at the moment. However, the trailer is solid box section steel, has plenty of reinforcing and appears to have held the weight in the past. In a week’s time, my big ‘brother’ John is coming down to stay for a few days and we’re going to get stuck in to stripping down and overhauling the trailer, hopefully having it done in the 6 days he’s here. I’m keeping fingers crossed for good weather.

Funnily enough, yesterday I applied for an evening class in welding, only to find that all the local places were full for the coming term, so I’m considering using what it would have cost to take the course to buy a welder and get my little brother to come over and teach me to weld, I also have some other friends who know a reasonable amount of welding so it looks like if there’s repairs needed then I should be covered with just some steel cost. I’m hoping fervently that this trailer will work out, otherwise it’s going to put a spanner in the works of getting it done in a reasonable time-frame. I haven’t seen a 3.5ton trailer go for less than about £1600, new they’re closer to £3k and that’s out of the budget. After doing so well on other purchases for the house there was bound to be something not go quite as smoothly, we’ll see what the next couple of weeks brings.

Written by justin

April 17th, 2009 at 12:21 pm

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A big day! Moving the trailer to it’s temporary home.

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Since I bought the trailer a few weeks ago it’s been parked outside where working on it wouldn’t be possible. Not wanting to annoy the neighbours I’ve been sitting and waiting until I could find a place to park it for the duration of the build. Thanks to an incredibly kind couple who have offered me a piece of their land for the duration of the build, I have the most lovely little spot to work.

New home 1

New home 1

New home 2

New home 2

As you’ll see from the photos, it’s set amongst trees, away from the road, secure and sheltered. My first job will be to strip the wood off the trailer and lay it out as a base on the flattest part of the ground and then push the trailer on top of it. Once that’s done I’ll be getting some axle stands and using those to make it nice and level so that I can make easy plumb checks as I start building the walls and pull the wheels off to clean out and rebuild the wheel hubs. Once the wood is off and the trailer set in place I’ll spread a couple of tarps underneath to catch any debris and start cleaning down the metal work, checking for any structural issues etc before painting it with something like hammerite and possibly a coat of underseal.

Once that’s all done I can finally start on the fun stuff such as putting the floor on and getting the walls up. It seems to be slow progress so far, with planning, searching, stockpiling etc, and I’m itching to get to the point where I can start cutting and nailing wood. Still, planning is vital and it’s giving me time to search for particular items, research more on some of the trickier parts of the coming build and get everything ready for when the really fun stuff.

Written by justin

April 6th, 2009 at 4:37 pm

I have my very own power station too!

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One of my primary plans for the tiny house is to be completely off grid. I want to be able to park pretty much anywhere and not need to connect to anything or rely on another property for facilities. Ideally I’d like to be out in the country, away from everywhere and so to this end I’ve been designing the systems within the house to give me complete autonomy. I’ll cover the various systems and their designs one by one and today I’ll go over the power setup, as I have most of that already.

I picked up a couple of Kyocera photovoltaic panels from ebay. They’re 85w each. One of them is damaged, the glass is cracked and I need to fix this before I can use that panel outdoors. The glass is tempered, so when it breaks it’s like a car windscreen and just shatters. It’s also bonded to the cells underneath so not much comes out, just leaving it with a crazed appearance. However, this is enough to let air through to the cells and over time they’ll degrade because of it. Some online research suggests that automotive clearcoat, the stuff that’s sprayed over car paint to protect it, is good for sealing it, so I’ll need to get that done as soon as I can. I may be able to do that myself as I have a new compressor and spray gun to play with, amongst other air tools. More on that later.

Given that I effectively got the broken panel for free, I don’t mind if it doesn’t make quite as much power as the good one, anything extra is a bonus. A quick check with a meter when it arrived showed it to be putting out as many volts as the good panel but I’ll have to wait until there’s a proper load on it before I’ll know just how good it is. Fingers crossed.

Of course if you have panels you need batteries, and here I was lucky again as someone on an alternative energy forum I take part in was selling some. Most batteries that people use for small off-grid setups are either 12v deep cycle batteries or a number of 6v golf cart batteries. These are built to withstand repeated charging and discharging, which ‘normal’ car batteries aren’t. You’ll kill a car battery pretty quickly if you do that. Even these ‘deep cycle’ batteries have a limited lifespan, usually 2-5 years, depending on how heavily they’re used. For more serious battery backup setups, you want batteries that are designed for much longer life and much heavier discharge cycles. The problem with these is that they’re big, heavy and very expensive. Good options for second hand stuff is from fork lift trucks and large power backup systems in places such as telephone exchanges or power stations. I even know of people who’ve got hold of battery banks from decommissioned submarines, which have tens of years of life in them still. Not very practical for a tiny house that moves places.

What I’ve managed to get hold of is a set of second hand batteries from a power station backup. These are about 10 years old and absolutely immaculate, probably have a good 20 years left in them as long as they’re looked after properly. They’re about 25kg each, 2 volts per cell and 110ah. I have 14 of them which is enough to make up a 12v 220ah set with a couple of spares. Given that they weigh a little over quarter of a tonne, I’ll not be towing them in the house, they’ll have to go separately and, when parked, will live in a box on the back of the house with a bit of extra support under them. I’ll wire the house up using marine grade equipment which should ensure decent quality and levels of safety. I’ll cover the wiring setup in a later post when I’ve settled on exactly how I’m going to do that. I’ll get some photos up of the panels and batteries later.

Written by justin

March 24th, 2009 at 9:19 am

I have foundations!

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So, after all the planning, how are things shaping up in the real world? Well, getting ready to start work on construction. The two most expensive things I expected to buy were the trailer and the windows.

Ebay has been pretty good to me so far: I have a trailer on which to base the house which I picked up for £560, it’s a second hand car transporter, 16′x8′. I’m going to strip the wood off and then all the paint, which will probably entail a couple of days with sanding wheels bolted to the angle grinder. I was after a 3500Kg max load trailer, but none were coming into my price range so in the end I went with a 2500kg model and I’ll build the house down to that weight. This will probably mean that at whatever time I move the house from place to place, I’ll drain off any water in the tank and put the batteries in a separate vehicle. More on those later.

Another reason for stripping all the paint off is to check the solidity of the welding all over and, if necessary, make any repairs. Fortunately my brother’s a qualified welder so I may get him over from Ireland for a weekend and borrow/rent a welder. I also have a great friend up in the midlands with a workshop and an industrial welder but without a regular tow vehicle it’s more difficult getting up there, though we’ll see just how it all works out. Once it’s been stripped, sorted and repainted I can get on with the building proper.

Trailer1 Trailer2

Windows are really expensive, I had no idea. I decided from the outset that I’d be looking for windows made of wood rather than upvc. I don’t particularly like upvc and have issues with the pollution caused by it’s production and disposal. Well managed and maintained forestry makes wood one of the most environmentally building materials, if you source locally. Problem is though, they’re not as common and are more labour intensive to build, which results in higher cost. I don’t mind occasional maintenance, treatment and upkeep on a house so longevity wasn’t an issue, although modern wooden windows are on a par with upvc for that nowadays. Cost though, wow they’re expensive. £350 and up, per window. All of a sudden my budget of £5k was looking seriously strained.

One of the interesting things about building is that much of the spare/surplus material can be reused elsewhere. Windows, though, are a different matter. If you want to replace a window you have to have an exact size match. If you’re building new you’ll want all your windows to be the same height and often same width. Any leftover windows are tougher to find a home for. This is good news for someone like me. I’m less worried about the sizes because I don’t have to start building until I’ve decided that. Bargains can be had if you’re prepared to wait and keep looking.

I knew what I wanted, which were windows similar to those that Jay Shafer uses on the factory built Tumbleweed houses, which are made by Jeld Wen. They just blend so nicely with the whole aesthetic of the tiny house. A daily ebay search started to come up trumps. I found a pair of Jeld Wen windows up in Stafford, unused, still in their wrapping. Starting bid of £100, I put them on my watch list and monitored progress. A couple of days went by and no-one had bid on them. A couple more days and still no bids. I couldn’t quite believe it, this was £700-worth of windows. I sat watching the last few hours of the auction convinced there’d be a flurry of last minute bids. There wasn’t. Mine for £100.

Did the happy dance.

Another week goes by and there’s two more windows, same style/make but slightly smaller. Another £100 and they’re mine. I need one last small window to complete the build, but that can wait. I needed these before I could start the framing plan for the walls, so that’s the next part of the project. I’m learning to use a home design program as so far my ideas and plans are all in my head. I’m not very artistic and drawing is something I only really do with graph paper, so this might be a useful piece of software to master as it also allows you to do 3D walkthroughs of the plans, which is quite handy for realising you’ve got heights wrong.

The budget is holding for now.

Written by justin

March 23rd, 2009 at 5:35 pm

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