Today I placed the order for my tansu steps, made of reclaimed elm burr wood, with no plywood, and no toxic stains or finishes. They are being built for me by Green Tea Designs in Toronto, at a significant discount from the listed price.
I had to make some adjustments to the step heights, but it will be very close to this design. I've ordered two of them, on for each side of the trailer, leading up to my sleeping platform.
I had a choice of Elm or Gingko. I decided to go with Elm wood.
Last time I wrote about the challenges of finding the right truck to pull the weight I'll be carrying. I was at my dentists' office, telling him about the Vehicle while he was getting his tools ready. He said, "Come with me," and led me out to the garage, told me to stand right behind his "clean diesel" car and turned on the engine. I smelled NOTHING!!!!
So I went online and starting reading about clean diesel. I am very reactive to diesel exhaust, so if I go this route, I need to make sure the engines in the heavier pickups meet my standards, but it's an exciting possibility that would give me some more leeway with weight. I still need to keep the whole thing under the limit that would require me to get a commercial license, but I wouldn't be weighing every ounce.
Here's what I found:
Effective Emissions Control Technology
Introduction of ultra-low sulfur diesel fuels for both on- and off-road applications has been a central part of the new clean diesel system designed to meet near zero emissions standards. With the introduction of lower sulfur diesel fuel, a number of exhaust treatment systems such as particulate filters, exhaust gas recirculation (EGR), selective catalyst reduction (SCR) and diesel oxidation catalysts (DOC) can further reduce emissions from diesel engines. The installation of various emission control technologies may also improve emissions from older diesel engines through retrofit capabilities. Read more about retrofit capabilities to reduce emissions from older vehicles and equipment.
I have not yet been able to find out exactly what the heavier trucks I'm looking at are fitted out with, but hope to know in the next few days.
One of the most important decisions to make correctly in the world of towable homes is choosing the right truck for the job. It needs to be able to safely tow the weight of the fully loaded trailer, without undue strain that can lead to parts wearing out early, or just plain dangerous driving. There are a lot of factors to weigh, as it were, and I'm on a steep learning curve to find out about them.
One limitation that's specific to me as someone with MCS is that I can't drive a truck with a diesel engine. Diesel powered pickup trucks can pull almost twice the weight that gasoline powered ones can, but the fumes are extremely toxic, linked to lung cancer, and I have a specific liver enzyme malfunction that makes me extra vulnerable to diesel.
Biodiesel that's actually 100% vegetable, instead of a mix of diesel and vegetable fuels, is very hard to find, and in most of the world, feeding corn to engines instead of people is considered a crime against humanity. I don't have the physical stamina to collect and convert used fast food oil, so until there's a viable alternative, I'm stuck with gasoline. The best I can do is to plan my travels carefully, so I'm not zig-zagging around the country, and keep my vehicle in good shape, so it's burning as cleanly as possible.
But what that means for my trailer is that every single ounce counts. What frying pan I choose, whether I keep hardcover or paperback books, what wood I use for my bookshelves, how I heat my water (tank or tankless)--in fact, every decision must take weight into account.
My frame, outer walls, trailer, doors and windows and built in storage will weight around 6000 lbs. That's not counting the insulation, inner walls, subfloor, flooring, counters, bookshelves, appliances, furniture and belongings. My old journals will need to go into storage because I can't afford the ounces to haul them. The three plants I plan to bring have to go into lightweight pots. I'll bring only the tools, books, kitchenware I most need, and leave the rest.
I knew I'd need to thin out my possessions because of size and weight limitations, but the inferior pulling power of gas is raising the stakes. So I'm keeping my scales at hand.
One of the design features I'm most excited about in my little house is the entrance through the shower. Through the shower? you ask. Yes. Where I now live, most people who visit me have to go take a shower, wash their hair, scrub down with baking soda and then change into house clothing that I provide in order to visit with me. The chemicals in their laundry and personal products make me really sick. Having the entrance to my house be a kind of decontamination chamber makes a lot of sense. It would be simple, though not cheap, to make it a stainless steel shower stall, with lockers built into one side, and a window into my greenhouse on the other.
My problem is that I want the space to do multiple things and I'm not sure how to make it work.
This is the entrance to my home. It's important to me that it be beautiful and inviting. I am already committing a Feng Shui felony by having my front door face the bathroom, although I have some ideas about how to remedy that. But a soap scum covered steel tunnel isn't very appealing.
In a space with a lot of water, the most critical thing is preventing mold and bacteria from cohabiting with me. So the materials need to be waterproof and easy to clean. Tile is lovely, but the grout takes a lot of care to stay mildew free, and grouts and caulks that have added mold retardants are toxic. Plus the constant vibration of travel will make it crack. Most people get shower pans that are made of resins and other synthetics, but those aren't a good option for me. Stone is hard to maintain well. Most bathroom stone has to be sealed to prevent it becoming porpus over time. If it's super polished, it's dangerously slippery. If it's rough, it hosts mold.
So I'm inviting you all to help me figure this out.
I need a shower/bathroom floor that is:
It all started on day in May of 2010. I'd been away at a writers' workshop for a week, came home to my apartment and got violently sick. I'd been sick most of the time I lived there, and in the past, when I'd traveled out of state and come home, and gotten sick, I'd assumed it was the travel that was wiping me out. But this had been a local workshop. Over the fourteen years I'd lived in that apartment, I had pulled up the carpets, laid down wood parquet tile and cork flooring in the kitchen, paid several thousand dollars to have mold remediation in my kitchen, convinced the owners to replace old linoleum with a tile floor, and repainted the walls with zero VOC paint, but three factors remainedout of my control: mold persisted inside the walls and made the air musty, and my neighbor sprayed roundUp on his lawn and vented a dryer at my front door that was so heavily scented with detergent, fabric softener and dryer sheets that you could smell it a full block away.
I realized that I couldn't stay in that place another day. But a neighbor's guest house in the process of remodeling proved even more toxic. After one night here, I began having bad neurological symptoms. That started me on a summer of sleeping on porches, in performance spaces, un-carpeted offices, and couches. One afternoon, while venting to a co-counselor about the challenges I faced, and all the investment in my old apartment that I was abandoning, I said "I wish I could live in a Romany wagon." That way if a neighbor started spraying poison, I could drive away and take my house with me.
In the five years since then, I've done massive amounts of research. I learned about designing small spaces from tiny house pioneers at Tumbleweed Tiny House Company, and pored over floor plans, and books full of small shelters of every kind. But Tumbleweed's houses are build with standard materials: plywood and fir and pine boards, and they rely on propane for heat and cooking. Plywood outgasses formaldehyde, pine and fir have terpines, that nice piney smell of fresh cut wood that can cause respiratory irritation, and I don't tolerate propane.
While I began researching alternatives for the basic structure, I was also wrestling with the many possibly ways to move a small home around. The tiny house builders I consulted were designing homes that would move every so often, but I wanted to be able to travel, and it was clear to me that pulling a tiny house with a regular trailer hitch is not a safe way to live on the road. I looked at the motor home option, but it's very hard to strip all the toxic materials out of a motor home, and having the living quarters and the driving mechanism all in one unit means that some leakage of engine fumes is almost inevitable. The same went for bus conversions.
My next idea was to build inside a box truck. The motor would be more separated from the home than in a motor home or bus, and more stable than a trailer. But as I started looking into sustaianable fuel options, that became less and less appealing. If I built inside a box truck, I'd be stuck with that vehicle, and none of the current alternatives are practical for a big heavy truck. Electric vehicles don't yet have the horsepower or charging capacity to haul big loads long distances. Vegetable oil is for the young and able bodied. It takes a lot of work to make the oil into a fuel that won't gum up the engine, and I don't have the capacity. Biodiesel is not really available. What's marketed as biodiesel is usually 20% vegetable oil and 80% fossil fuel. And in much of the world, the idea of feeding corn to engines instead of people is akin to a war crime.
Vision Corp makes a hydrogen fuel cell big rig truck, (for $175,000) but although there's a tipping point in sight, no one has a functioning solar powered hydrogen generator yet. In the future I may be able to use a fuel cell truck with an on board solar generator, but that's not now.
So I finally decided on a 5th wheel or gooseneck trailer. It's more stable than a regular towing hitch, but has the advantage of being separate from the engine, has a bunk that sits over a pickup truck bed, adding a sleeping space to the original 24' floor plan, and the truck I use to pull it can be switched out when a more sustainable option comes on the market.
And rather than buying a flatbed trailer and building up a structure from scratch, I can buy a gooseneck trailer shell, made of 100% aluminum, with no structural wood at all. Stay tuned to learn the thinking behind my other decisions, and some of the choices that are still pending.
I just sent my down payment to Advantage Trailers in Illinois. They will start work on my 32 foot gooseneck trailer very shortly. Here's the latest floor plan:
And here's a side view--the curb side wall of the the Vehicle from the inside.
Last week I spent a couple of hours with Jim Groveau, head designer at Advantage Trailers, a small trailer company in Carol Stream, Illinois. Jim and his team will be building me a 32 foot gooseneck trailer the same size as this one, though it will look very different. They can start construction as soon as I pay them $26,000, which is half the cost for this phase of the Vehicle.
I read enviously of people who are able to build their tiny homes for under $20,000. They are able to use scavenged wood, standard plywood and propane for heat and cooking, all options that are closed to me. Instead, I will have walls of aluminum, and heat my house with a solar powered mini-split heat exchanger and a $4500 virtually smokeless wood stove called the Kimberly. Advantage Trailer will install my water tanks and lines, build in a whole series of external access storage lockers, including one for my solar batteries and install a drop down deck with an electric strap system to raise and lower it. Once they get started, it will take about 10 weeks to finish. After five years of feeling like this project was creeping along, suddenly it's zooming!
Now it's time to reach out widely and let people know what I'm doing and why
Many things have changed over this long, extremely snowy winter, including a lot of my plans for the Vehicle. In a few weeks, I'll be meeting with designers at Advantage Trailer Company in Illinois to finalize plans so they can build me an enclosed trailer shell. This is a gooseneck trailer with a complete metal shell--the "skin" of my little house.
I'm looking at a solar powered mini-split for heating and cooling. The mini-split is a magical machine that extracts heat from cold winter air! I'm also planning on a small wood stove for cooking and back-up heat.
I've abandoned the fancy, experimental insulations I was considering, and am going for closed cell rigid foam and thick walls, to super-insulate my space.
Those are the headlines for now. More details to follow.
As the temperature finally drops in Cambridge, I've been thinking a lot about how to heat my tiny home. I've been told conflicting things about how possible it is to heat with solar energy, and I have a lot of other things I want my share of sunlight to do, so I'm exploring my options. One of my consultants recommends a small propane heater, the Mini Franklin, which is vented to keep fumes out of the indoors. I also looked at this marine propane heater also built to keep the combustion process is completely isolated from the room being heated, and not deplete oxygen. They are both possibilities, but keep me tied to fossil fuels.
On a ramble through Pinterest, I found a link to a lot of information about rocket mass heaters. Like masonry heaters, they work by burning very hot, and burning up the gases released from wood, which makes them super efficient. Rocket mass heaters, like rocket stoves, burn sideways. They are surrounded by a mass of masonry that stores the heat and releases it slowly over many hours.
2015 is going to be a marathon year for me. My father has moved into assisted living, and is less able to support me financially. My body is expressing how stressful it's been to uproot myself from my long time Bay Area community, move east and be a caretaker for the past three years. Now that my father has moved, we need to prepare the family house for sale, which means I have to get my house built. One way I will make up the income gap is to provide home stays for other environmentally ill people.
I am working hard to finalize design and materials decisions, and am getting ready to launch my Indie Go Go fundraising campaign. I am hoping to start building by summer.
So I will be researching and fundraising for the Vehicle, running a home stay business, finishing several books and getting them into print, and learning how to better market my self-published books, clearing my parents' house of 35 years of clutter, and taking care of my body and soul.
I've decided to think of myself as an athlete intraining for a really big event. Not sure if it's along distance run, or a high altitude climb.
Aurora Levins Morales is a chronically ill and disabled writer, historian, visual artist, and activist