Learn how to build a temporary, portable home called a microhouse.
Building your own microhouse isn't as difficult as you might think.
ILLUSTRATION: PENNY HAUFFE
The foundations of the first true American microhouse—and of the philosophy that changed society's attitude toward personal freedom and man's relationship with Nature—were laid "near the end of March, 1845," when Henry David Thoreau, a Harvard dropout from Concord, Massachusetts, borrowed an ax, walked a mile and a half to Walden Pond, and began to build a ten-by-fifteen-foot one-room cabin of hand-hewn logs and recycled shanty boards fastened with salvaged nails and wooden pegs. In an era when a laborer earned a dollar a day, his total cash outlay for the house came to $28.12. He lived there for more than two years and from the experience wrote a book called Walden, which changed my life and the lives of many others. It can change yours as well.
In the balance of this article, we'll suggest how you can live like Thoreau and create your own Walden by designing and building your own rustic microhouse. Perhaps you'll just want to dream about doing so. Be sure to check out the image gallery along the way to see some helpful illustrations.
Even in the backyard of a town or suburban home, a microhouse exempt from building codes can be built as a moveable tool shed. Arrange the front to face the garden or perhaps a little fishpond; screen its open sides with fast-growing shrubs and vines. Fitted with a portable chemical toilet behind a folding screen in one comer, water from a hose, and electricity from a long outdoor extension cord plugged in at the house, it can provide a rustic backyard retreat for anyone who needs some private quiet time in a natural setting.
In a more rural locale, where city zoning rules and building codes won't interfere, a more firmly rooted version with a detached privy and a grey water drywell to dispose of cooking and wash water can serve as a place of their own for grandmother or an adult child who has come to live with you. Farther afield still, it can serve as a low-cost, low-impact second home in the woods or mountains or on a lake. It can be a place to camp while you build your full-size log cabin; then you can convert the microhouse into an in-law's or older teenager's apartment, a small barn, stable, or hen house.
It can be the ultimate retreat on a slow-moving Southern catfish and craw-dad creek to host a sun-warmed retirement that will remain affordable no matter what might happen to Social Security or the Dow Jones average.
Where to build? Some place wild and natural to be sure—or as wild and natural as you can manage. Economies aside, the greatest environmental advantage of a hand-built microhouse over conventional home construction is that a diesel bulldozer isn't needed to dig cellars and utility lines, to grade the land flat, and to make noise and belch smoke. Like Thoreau, you can haul or cart your house, plank by plank, as far into the back-beyond as your energy permits and erect it on a foundation of local stones, so the structure disturbs little of its natural surroundings. A hand-built microhouse rests lightly on the earth, and you can site one in places where limited access, rugged topography, environmental ethics, or law prohibits conventional construction.
If built with natural healthy-house materials (removable metal screw fasteners and wooden boards rather than epoxy adhesives and 4 x 8 foot sheets of plywood impregnated with formaldehyde), using traditional hand building methods (built-up posts and beams) and modern portable or cordless electric tools, a microhouse can be sturdy, yet quickly built. It can also be easily disassembled or moved, so it can be erected and used for relatively short periods in areas that are too ecologically fragile or scenic to build on permanently. Such a temporary structure will often be exempt from building codes and zoning restrictions affecting permanent dwellings, as it will leave no more of a footprint when gone than a family-sized tent makes over a week or two of camping.
You don't have to purchase 100 acres of remote wilderness. Public parks aside, most of America's most attractive property is owned by farmers and ranchers, absentee landowners, trusts, universities, mining and timber companies. It is not for sale, but often can be rented or leased for a pittance, or can be squatted on with the owner's tacit approval. You won't find such opportunities advertised in the real estate brochures. It takes on site research and some personal persuasion with a country landowner or big city lawyer or trustee. You'll need a proposal to build a microhouse that can be taken apart, loaded on a truck, and taken with you when you move on. Take a copy of Walden when you make your pitch.
You can also look for the little building plots that are available for $500 to $2,000 per acre throughout the country. Seek out a few acres abutting public lands: national, state, or local parks and preserves. Or find small plots that tax-harried large landowners are willing to sell off. You'll have to scout out such plots yourself or find a local realtor to locate them. The big national real estate chains that specialize in helping relocate highly paid executives can't be bothered.
The hobby microhouses designed by architects that you see in books have flush toilets, projection TVs. microwave ovens, two or three stories, dome-topped towers with slate or soldered copper sheet roofs, gingerbread ornamented porches and alcoves, multi-level decks— a few are even built in trees. Such micropalaces must be neat fun as play houses for grownups with time and money to spare. But an honest working microhouse for a long-term minimalist lifestyle should be as small and simple in design and construction as possible.
Thoreau's 10 by 15 foot, 150 square foot cabin at Walden was simply built, and typical of real-world designs. It featured used brick flues at the midpoint of one end-wall. Thoreau's high shallow Rumford-design fireplace and stove were flanked by simple cooking facilities on one side and a combined work and dining table and chairs on the other. At the far wall was the bed and a nightstand or two for the water pitcher, washbowl, and chamber pot--an essential nighttime utility when the outhouse is a long cold walk back into the woods.
Against the middle walls was a small desk to keep writing supplies and a freestanding closet or chest of drawers to store clothing, tools, and equipment.
Thoreau said, "I had three chairs; one for solitude, two for friendship, and three for society." There is precious little space for more in a microhouse. Trying to accommodate more people, things, or activities than the essentials of daily living for any length of time will crowd you out.
It is a good idea to simulate life on graph paper to see if you can tolerate a microhouse. Build a model from dollhouse components or draw a scale representation of the floorplan (1/4 inch to the foot), then make scale models or cutouts of the smallest furnishings you can imagine plus every item of any size you plan to keep in the house. You'll find that the king-size bed is an extravagance of bloated modem room sizes and that standard bunk beds consume less scarce floor space than a double, but not all that much less once you factor in the space needed to get in and out. A little 14 by 24 inch rectangular table offers enough space for two or three at a stretch, to dine, knead bread, and play Monopoly by candle light. It hugs the wall, using less center floor space than a round or square table of equal usable area. Make it oval to eliminate thigh-poking square comers. Thoreau built his table with three legs, which saved foot space. Put your-bed on legs like a waist-high Colonial four-poster and use the space underneath for your foldable clothing, linens, and dry food. You can build or buy really capacious under-bed shelf systems. I keep nearly everything, from tools and truck parts to winter storage squash, in cardboard boxes under the bed or stacked in odd open spaces against the wall.
Then move things around as you play at living there for a week. Assume that it's pouring rain outside, the firewood is wet, and what passes for a dooryard is all mud. Thoreau writes loftily of his lack of a need for a proper lawn: "No yard! but unfenced nature ...no gate—no front yard—and no path to the civilized world." Lovely! But, till you lay flagstones or a boardwalk over the bare ground, the comings and goings of visitors and vehicles will turn your yard of forest loam or meadow sod to mud in April of every year.
Change your house design as the paper plan suggests. Try rectangular and square designs of different wall lengths in the 10 to 16 foot range. Leave plenty of working space for the cook, and be sure to leave a full 30 inches between your wood stove and any combustible material, including the walls. A brick fireplace and wall behind your wood stove will reduce clearance at the stove's rear and free up more than 10% of available interior floor space. But mortared brick is hardly feasible if you are planning a temporary structure. To minimize clearance and save floor space, you will need to install ceramic or sheet-metal heat shields on spacers to both the wood-frame wall and to the back of the stove.
If two souls are to live there in harmony, you'll need a way to segment space for those times when one party needs solitude. A porch with a comfy rocking chair is one answer in warm weather. An all-weather answer is a folding screen or a blanket hung from the ceiling in front of the sleeping area. Working out the words or silent signals to communicate the need to be alone without hurting a companion's feelings is a lot harder than segmenting the space.
A rustic microhouse will have primitive utilities such as hand-carried water in a pitcher on the nightstand. It will freeze on top on winter nights and must be heated on a woodstove before you can wash up in the morning. You can keep perfectly clean and tidy in a microhouse, but it takes time. Indeed, just keeping body and soul together by hand can be a full-time job during bad winter weather.
Plan to have plenty of windows; windows to the outside will expand your sense of space. Indeed, you'd do well to get your windows first and design the house around them.
Don't overdo windows, however, as walls are a good place to hang what stuff you do keep. I have a theory that anything you really need should be in sight and available for instant use. Anything you squirrel away in a drawer or closet is as good as lost forever; it ought to be stored in the woodshed, discarded, or never acquired in the first place. The same is true of stuff that gets dusty; it's not being used enough to warrant keeping.
Speaking of dust, another inadvertent advantage of microhousing is that your cooking improves. You soon learn that you can't fry or over-cook anything. If you do, minute particles of smoke or vegetables carried in steam settle on everything in the room. Dust on those unused tools becomes greasy, and the windows get cloudy on the inside.
My main storage problem has always been finding space for books and tools. I've discovered that walls covered floor to ceiling with shallow bookshelves are not only ornamental, they take up very little floor space and, as literary agent Gunther Stuhlmann suggested once, they make excellent insulation. Books get dusty from disuse, so I donate idle books to the library and go there if I ever need to read them.
Most hand tools can be hung on the walls with one or two nails or screws. So can pots and pans, cooking implements, lanterns, beaver traps, canoe paddles, and most outer clothing. I tie boot laces together and hang them up.
Don't neglect the ceiling. Exposed rafters will hold a lot. My rafters have nails hammered into each side to hold boots, fishing rods, reels of cordage, balls of twine, and all the storage food that needs to be kept warm and dry. The best place to keep dog food from both dog and mice is in a feed sack hung from a spike in the rafters.
With colorful feed sacks, corn dried in the husk, chili peppers, onions in braids and mesh sacks, smoked hams, sides of bacon, dried strips of venison jerky, green waders, and yellow slickers hanging all around, you don't have spare or a need for oil paintings, stuffed fish, or other frivolities. I'll not offend architects or interior designers by quoting Thoreau's disdainful opinion of mere ornamentation.
As for such self-indulgences as window curtains, Thoreau wrote, "...it costs me nothing for curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon, and I am willing that they should look in." As for rugs, "A lady once offered me a mat, but having no room to spare with in the house, nor time to spare within or without to shake it, I declined it, preferring to wipe my feet on the sod before my door. It is best to avoid the beginnings of evil.
But, don't forget that your living room is naturally expandable and happy to accommodate any personal needs or social events that would crowd the microhouse. As Thoreau says: "My 'best' room ...always ready [for guests]... was the pine wood behind my house ...a priceless domestic swept the floor and dusted the furniture and kept things in order."
Invite your city friends out for a microhouse-warming and throw a barn dance in your own "best" room. Thoreau's "priceless domestic" still tidies up for bargain wages.
When Thoreau built his house at Walden, he was a robust 26, energized by his new philosophy and motivated by the desire to publish a book about his experiences. He was squatting—paying nothing, with free access to the natural resources of woods and pond—on land that belonged to his mentor, the poet and philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson. He even had to borrow his ax. He could take his sweet time. He began in late March, moved in on July 4th, and finished plastering the inside walls in late fall.
Few of us are—or would want to be—as unencumbered as Thoreau or have half a year, full-time, available for building a microhouse. Fewer still of us will have free land with useable timber at hand plus free room and board and the cordial welcome of a mentor a brisk walk away. And only a few specialized builders today have Thoreau's apparent hands-on experience in house building with pegged mortise-and-tenon joints, or somewhere to borrow the timber framing tools to accomplish the work. If you have the urge to build this way, get one of Jack Sobon or Tedd Benson's books on building post-and-beam structures.
Thoreau didn't have to contend with building codes and zoning ordinances intended to maintain city property values—and, many claim, to perpetuate the incomes of contractors, regulators, and the building trades. I would like to suggest a microhouse design and hand-building system that will circumvent most such restrictions, that involves minimal cash outlay, and that you can build on evenings, weekends, and vacations.
With planning, you can prefabricate most of your microhouse using utility power, truck it piece by piece to the most remote building site, assemble your beams, and erect the house by yourself or at an old-time house-raising party.
Modern stick-built buildings are framed with little 1 3/4 inch thick "2-by" boards cut from easily graded, clear Douglas fir or western spruce that's shipped all over the continent from the West Coast and 4 x 8 foot sheets of plywood or wood particle-board that too often comes from the ravaged rainforests of Southeast Asia. Only when permanently fastened together, often with adhesives as well as nails, are the sticks and sheet goods strong enough to support their own weight.
A traditional post-and-beam, board-sheathed structure can be built from atmosphere-dry or even green timber, and a few irregularities and out-of-plumb boards won't be noticed. In the old days, if a post-and-beam house wanted to cant over, low sills were jacked up, sheathing was loosened, a few key joints were exposed, the pegs were loosened, and it was pulled straight with several teams of oxen, then repegged.
Here is a way to build your microhouse using the best of both old and new technologies. The components are more easily handled by a single worker than Thoreau's tree trunks. It is almost as easily disassembled as built—based on methods devised by those of us who restore old homes but lack the timber, time, or skill to reproduce and replace the original mortised and tenoned timbers.
The secret is simple: use modern dimension lumber to build up reproduction posts (the vertical timbers) and horizontal beams. A 6 x 6 inch horizontal sill beam is not a traditional squared log with mortise holes bored and chiseled in it. Rather, it is a sandwich of three layers of 2 x 6s with spaces left in the center as mortises into which slip tenons of one extended plank of two or three layer vertical wall posts: 6 x 6s at the comers and doorposts, and 4 x 4s in between. Another three-part, 6 x 6 inch plate beam goes on top to secure the top of the wall and support the ceiling and roof. The posts and beams can be prefabbed if a big crew is available to raise heavy frame members, or precut beam components can be fabricated in place by one or two people. The two and three part timbers are fastened together with self-tapping deck screws put in with a powerful electric drill or screwdriver—a cordless model if there's no electricity available on-site. Post-to-beam joints can be bored through and pegged with dowels, or they can be power-screwed together. Either way they should come apart pretty easily.
Joists (beams that form the floor and ceiling) are fastened to inner faces of the sill and plate with modern galvanized joist hangers or are notched on the bottom of each end and rest on a length of 2 x 4s screwed to the bottom of the inner faces of main beams. Power-driven deckscrews hold them in place.
Floor and ceiling are planks fastened over the joists. It's best to edge floorboards with tongue-and-groove molding or a simple rabbeted lap joint to keep out drafts. The lumber mill can do this for a fee on its table shaper, or you can invest in a dado set for your table saw to cut rabbets, or in a heavy-duty hand-held router and a set of T&G rabbeting bits and do it yourself at home where you likely have a shop, or a hard-floored garage or driveway to work on, plus plenty of electric current from your friendly utility company.
You'd have to look hard these days for a shanty like the one that Thoreau took apart for its edge-beveled wall boards. If you like power-planing or hand-planing, you can bevel the outer top edge and lower inside edge of all your wall boards and lap them horizontally on the posts with feathered edges overlapping top-over-bottom to form a more or less watertight joint. During the summer, Thoreau enjoyed the breeze that his feather—edged walls let in, but when winter threatened, he covered them with shingles he made from sawmill scrap.
You too can waterproof horizontal sheathing by nailing or stapling on hand-split or bought shingles or clapboards, though they'll cover your sheathing screws and make eventual disassembly more of a hassle. You can sacrifice siding material and go modern: if the house must be moved, nail on your wood plank sheathing, staple on windproof and energy-retaining Tyvek housewrap, nail on an inch of rigid foam insulation and then the shingles or clapboards. The siding can be pried off from inside when it's time to move along.
It's also possible to fasten edge-moulded boards horizontally, with overlapping joints that will shed water. You can also fasten horizontal furring strips of 2 x 4 lumber every 18 inches or 2 feet, up and down the posts. Sheathe them with edge-molded boards. Easiest is to sheathe with butted square-edged planks. Then cover the seams with thin board battens. A layer of tarpaper (building felt) under the finish boards is traditional and helps weatherproof the house, but isn't consistent with healthy house theory.
Before tarpaper, the old-timers caulked the cracks of board-and-batten siding with rag strips, then wind-proofed further with newspaper flour-pasted to the insides of the boards. Thoreau mentions no such measures; he plastered his inside walls to keep out the cold wind. Today, you can pack Coming's new Miraflex itchless fiberglass insulation into the interior walls; it comes encapsulated in its own vapor barrier like sausage. Then apply easily removed edge-moulded boards with screws or easily pried-off finishing nails, or another type of interior wall.
Old-time inside wall coverings can be as complicated as Thoreau's lath and plaster or as quick and simple as burlap or canvas stapled onto long strips of half-inch by 1 1/2-inch lattice boards that are fastened to the wall top and bottom. Then the fabric is pulled tight at the sides around more lath, and sprayed with water to shrink it taut. In the old days, they made walls and even ceilings this way and shrunk the fabric by painting it. You can also attach reclaimed paneling from a recycling center or thrice-accursed gypsum drywall if you like to carry, score, split, tape, and paste the infernally heavy, brittle, dog-awful ugly stuff. It also must be painted or papered immediately or the paper covering will absorb every vapor, stain, or smear it can. Removing drywall without destroying it a impossible.
Go easy on the insulation. Loose encapsulated fiberglass baits can be removed, packed down in plastic bags (sit on them) and taken with you just fine, but in my experience, even a low fire in a small wood stove can cook you out of an insulated microhouse. To eliminate drafts, it is good to seal the crawlspace under the floor. Traditionally, old hay is stacked all around the sill for the winter then used as mulch in the garden. You can also tack on leftover boards or staple on black plastic garden mulch.
Rafters are most easily measured, cut, and prefabbed right on the ceiling boards you fastened to the ceiling joists. Lay out the pattern with a chalk line, giving the roof a high peak in snow country. Leave a good foot of rafter beyond the wall so your eaves have a nice overhang. An eaveless roof looks cheap, like a mad bomber's shack. A microhouse is economical or fugal, but not cheap; it won't be a shack if you take the time to finish it off carefully.
Cut rafters from 2 x 8s or 2 x 10s. Fashion the smaller boards into masses, paired in inverted Vs to be attached to the ridge board at the peak and with a cross—brace just under the peak and another partway down. Cut facing notches in the angled edge of rafter boards in the peak to accept the 2 x 6 ridge board, and cut birds-mouth notches where rafters fasten to the plate.
Mark rafter locations every 16 inches for plywood sheathing or corrugated roofing and every 24 inches for inch-thick board sheathing. Make all rafters identical and fabricate them into identical trusses. Cut your ridge board and mark the rafter locations on it. Raise rafters and ridge board starting with a pair in the center.
Tack the scrap boards across the rafters to keep them from collapsing. It makes for better holding to attach rafters to the house with screws and with hurricane straps (strips of tin that loop over each rafter and hold it to the floor at both eaves). You can buy them or make your own by cutting thin galvanized metal with tinsnips and punching screw holes with a hammer and nail.
The easiest roof is corrugated steel—the so-called tin roof—galvanized or in baked-on colors. Applied like giant shingles, overlapping sheets are fastened through pre-punched holes with deck screws to horizontal 2 x 4 gifts laid across unsheathed rafters, and the peak is capped with a V-shaped stamping. You can also put half-inch plywood or planks on rafters and apply roll roofing or tarpaper and shingles. In warm climates, many old-timers ran girts across the rafters every 12 inches or so, and attached overlapping slates or hand-split shingles to them.
See the image gallery and use your own common sense to fabricate and assemble pieced frame members. All frames can be cut and assembled off-site if you have roads to truck them in on and a big strong work crew. To carry them by hand or to transport them in a garden cart, keep pieces as small as you can handle and assemble on-site with cordless drivers or electricity from a portable generator. The frame goes together like oversized Lego. Once again, if you're using deck screws instead of nails, you can disassemble and try again if you make a mistake.
Siting the house is a challenge that deserves time and thought. First consideration is water supply and disposal. A location downhill of a year-round flowing spring is ideal.
To create a pool of clear water, you can dig out the stinky mix of mud, half-decayed leaves, sticks, and frogs that accumulate in any natural spring. Box and cover it with natural boards and run pipe downhill to bring a gravity water supply into the house. Bury the pipe or cover it with old hay and black plastic over that, and let it run all winter to keep it from freezing up. Overflow and gray water from the sink can be ran to the garden in summer. If you want gray water to flow away, dig a deep dry well to below frost for winter.
If you let it run out on the land, it will freeze into an ice wedge then thaw into a bubbling mess of soap scum and cooking remnants that will pollute groundwater or befoul local waterways.
Orient the house to fit the topography and give you the best view. Face the front to the south to get the most sun in winter. Ideally, locate on a high spot to facilitate air and water drainage. I like to build on hills—as did Thoreau—and under really big trees to benefit from their summer shade. It adds time, but you can dig a foundation back into a hill or build high piers in front to level your foundation. You can tie really bothersome branches up and out of the way.
If suitable flat rock is handy, you can set your microhouse on dry-laid (non-mortared) stone piers, as Thoreau did. I lived in a house set on a foundation of flat but slippery mica schist once and was forever replacing foundation stones to try and keep it from sliding off into the orchard.
One concession to modernity that I make is to use concrete block, even if it is heavy to haul. A low pier of blocks needn't be mortared together if you give them a firm base. Piers much higher than one block above ground level should be mortared. All the directions you need are printed on bags of premixed mortar. Before you begin, be sure to have enough water on hand to mix and clean up.
Lay out your house using batterboards (four lengths of cord tied to stakes so pairs cross at the corners of the house). Use a line level and 90° angles to get the lines perfectly level and the corners square. Take your time. The strings stretched between diagonal corners should be the same length. You'll want piers at comers and every 4 to 10 feet on the sides, depending on the length and thickness of your timbers and joists.
If the house is wider than 10 feet, you'll need a set of piers down the center to support a middle beam. The following sentences will outline some single-board spans for your microhouse. For an unsupported floor joist or rafter of 1' to 2.5' use at least 2x4s with a 4" log diameter. For 2.5' to 6' use 2x6s with a 5" log diameter. For 6' to 8', 2x8s with a 6" diameter are recommended. 8' to 10' will need 2x10s with an 8" diameter and 10' to 12' will require 2x12s with a 10" diameter. For an unsupported floor joist or rafter of over 12' you will need support at midpoint.
Pull off the batterboards, remove all the dark crumbly topsoil at each corner in a yard-wide circle, and dig down as far as you can into the subsoil. Below frost is best—and the law for conventional homes. But if a pier under a microhouse heaves up from frost, you can jack up the frame and set wooden shims on low piers to level it.
Scrape the bottoms of holes level, using a plumb bob on the level line to get the bottoms of all holes on the same plane (so tops of piers will be level as well). Add 6 inches of gravel if you have it. Tamp well. Remove and replace the lines as needed to set your foundation blocks so the tops of piers are plumb and level with the string, outer corners just under where the twine crosses.
Now, place your sill beams and attach floor joists to hold them in place. Attach flooring to joists at least around the edges of the platform. Set in comers and wall posts so they are plumb all around. Tack angled scrapwood braces to the sill, as needed, to keep verticals plumb. Join (slipping tenons into mortises) and tack-fasten horizontal brace-beams between vertical posts. Then, fashion the upper plate beam all around. Set in and fasten ceiling joists and ceiling.
Put on the roof. Install pre-hung windows and doors. Finish up by installing siding and adding trim boards to cover seams at corners, around sill, fascia, and Scotia, to seal the eaves, and around doors and windows.
From leftover wood, Thoreau built a woodshed. You'll need one too—place it between house and privy so each tripper out can bring in some wood on resuming. Put the compost heap on the path as well for easy disposal of kitchen scraps. Lean-tos are easy additions for a front porch or at the rear, as a summer kitchen where you take the stove during warm months. Build them with plank floors and tin roofing on 4 x 4 roof and floor frames on stone or concrete-block piers, the same way you built the house.
To use the attic for living space or to add a story, first build a stair. Pull out the bed and cut a hole in the ceiling under the roof peak at the back wall, frame the opening, and build a ladder or stair up the wall.
To finish the attic, a narrow ceiling ran be made by adding short stump joists just under the roof peak. Short knee walls can be added a few feet in from the walls along the eaves, and dormers can be thrown out on one or both sheds of the roof to give a more expansive feeling to the garret. Add insulation, a vapor barrier, and fasten on T&G or half-lap boards or recycled paneling to finish the room.
To add a story, remove roofing and rafters (and pat yourself on the back for using removable fasteners). Build a replica of the first story atop the walls, using the top plate of your fast story as the sill plate of the second. Rebuild the roof.
A full two-story microhouse can look a little too much like a little tower. To create a structure with a slightly lower profile, build side walls that are only half-height. This will give you a more nicely proportioned story-and-a-half mini-home.
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