Often, when people learn that I live in a tiny house, their first question is “did you build it yourself?” This always gives me pause. How can I communicate that yes, I did, but it was also built by Hammerstone School carpentry courses, and by Maria Klemperer-Johnson, Hammerstone's owner? And by my brother, who put up my loft ceiling one February day, and my parents, who were conscripted to simple tasks every time they visited, and by my friends, who walked my dog on long work days, and fed me, and looked at all forty paint tabs I brought to every social gathering in 2013. One of the first things I was reminded of when I started the process of building my tiny house was that nobody does anything alone.
Building a Community
While my connection with Hammerstone School set my project in motion, it was only the first of myriad relationships that developed throughout my build. As soon as we committed to building my tiny house as a class project, I was ready to buy a trailer. One can purchase a high quality trailer, custom-made for building a tiny house; I didn't take that route. Instead, I asked my friend Donn at Northland Sheep Dairy about the old camper he and Maryrose had by their garage. Knowing Donn, that camper was his next major project, and would soon be converted into a horse-powered implement on his farm; I had to act quickly. Next thing I knew, I was the owner of a title-less 1987 Shasta pull-behind camper, covered in graffiti, the least offensive being a large “POOP” scrawled under a window.
Photo courtesy Liz Coakley
“Well,” I thought. “I'll borrow a truck and pull my camper home to demolish it.” I had pulled some trailers around before for farm purposes, but an unregistered 22-foot camper parked at the top of a snowy hill was another story. Who would be willing to lend a rookie trailer-driver their truck in such a situation? A friend I hardly knew at the time, but who became a regular and generous source of support throughout the build (and who also happens to be the partner of Hammerstone School's owner), offered to tow the Shasta for me. Only the youngest of their six children came along, a cheerful two-year-old singing to himself in his car seat. By the time we arrived, wrestled the sunken trailer onto the hitch, rocked it back and forth until it was loose from the ice, maneuvered it through a tight turn-around, and drove it the hour and a half back home in the dark without a license plate, I realized it was not a task I could have accomplished alone. Not even close.
And where did we park it? At Interbrook Farm, on the land of other generous friends, who were unconcerned at having a demolition project occur in the front yard of their newly purchased farm. In fact, Andrew offered me access to any tools I might need from his shop, and pulled his dump truck up next to the Shasta so I could toss my refuse right in.
Photo by Liz Coakley
The demolition was surprisingly easy. With only a cordless drill, a crow bar, and a mediocre dust mask, I set forth. I wouldn't say pulling apart soggy fiberglass insulation and rotten composite boards was fun, but it was satisfying. I appreciated starting my build with a task that would be hard to mess up. Once I pulled off the laminate walls and got the heavy refrigerator and broken windows free, the rest came apart easily. The deck of the trailer was the most solid part, and my brother happened into town just in time to finish that with me. Interbrook Farm then sported a pile of scrap metal (much of which went into building a chicken coop and pig hutches), a pile of burnable wood, and a dump truck full of trash. Oh, and if you looked carefully, you'd notice a rusty chassis on the side—my diamond in the rough.
The process of getting that chassis ready for the build involved yet more assistance from my community: borrowed trucks, phone calls and emails soliciting ideas and advice, consults and journeys to welders, sandblasters, garages, and farmers with truck scales. A few weeks later, I had a registered and inspected trailer, painted shiny black and complete with legitimate brakes, a new license plate, and a working set of lights.
Photo by Sara Worden
When people say they built their own house, they often mean they hired architects, contractors and crews to build the structure. When I tell people I built my own house, I mean that I built my own house. I measured and cut boards, spent sweaty days covered in shreds of foam insulation, sanded and finished the floor and the trim. But everything is relative. Maria acted as my architect and contractor, and Hammerstone students as the crew. Friends and neighbors lent me their knowledge, excitement, skill, and resources. As Maria and I prepared for the first day of class, I realized that the preparation of my trailer was insignificant compared to the building of a community that supports me in my endeavors. Admiring my new trailer, I did my best to remain calm as Maria jokingly painted “poop” on it in an inconspicuous spot, just so we wouldn't forget our beginnings.
Liz Coakley has been living and farming in the greater Ithaca, NY area since 2005. In the summer of 2013, her tiny house was built as a class project for Hammerstone School's Carpentry for Women program. Liz and 7 other budding women carpenters worked and learned alongside instructor Maria Klemperer-Johnson to bring this house to life. This blog is the second in a series on the process of building tiny.