Of mistake making and taking my ceiling apart…

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Mistakes happen. They are one of the few, infallible certainties that plague my doings, no matter how familiar or simple such a doing may seem. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the most difficult and least familiar of my doings to date would be no exception. The only difference is that when I mess up on something I’m relatively versed in, like sewing, I can eat the 20 something dollars it cost to buy the fabric, throw it into a corner with a few choice words and forget about the whole thing. Mistakes made on Little Yellow? Proportionally less forgettable.

And I made a lot of mistakes building my house. Most of them are cosmetic (the word ‘square’ didn’t get used much around here) and many of them actually ended up creating some lovely, unexpected outcomes, but there are a few major ones I would so love to have a time machine for. So here’s my pile of least favourite screw ups for your consideration, in the form of a list that I wish I had seen before I made them. Go forth, and don’t do what I did.

Unless I’m speaking to the unmistaken folks who have never had this sort of reoccurring disaster befall them. If you are in on this in crowd you’d best go out and build something perfectly and do some skipping while you’re at it. I would like your phone numbers before you go

1. Do not build your 18’ house on a trailer with only 7000 lb capacity (GVWR). Even if you’re lucky enough not to have your build be overweight, the fear of a fat house will haunt your every move. Every one of them. Like blinking, it’ll haunt that too.

2. Do not buy windows the exact same size as your rough openings. They will not fit. They will not. Now you will have to either widen the openings or shrink the windows, and both options suck.

3. Do not buy aluminum windows. Aluminium is a fantastic conductor and a terrible insulator. Imagine two cups of cold liquid on a hot day, one aluminum and one wood or vinyl. Condensation will form almost immediately on the aluminum cup while the wood or vinyl cup stays dry because both are better insulators than aluminium, which is in fact one of the worst insulators ever. This means watching the condensation sweat of death form on the interior frame of your windows, creating an ever evolving, unwanted hippie commune of mould on your window sills.

3 1/2. Do not buy said aluminium windows from a company called ‘Superior’ (Aha. Hahaha.) In two years of having them, you can watch in merriment as your clearly superior purchase falls the HELL apart to the point where only 4 of your 10 windows still operate properly (or at all), and 2 of which are completely broken. Like glass-separating-from-the-frames-which-are-separatinng-from-each-other kind of broken. Chalk up the change for aluminium clad wood windows or go with vinyl if your budget requires it. SUPERIOR. Jerks….

4. Worst for last: do not forgo venting your roof. Rotting sheathing and black mould are bad, bad words in the world of shelter, and that’s what waits for you living full time in an unvented shoebox. You will have to fix it later when it’s much harder after a year or so of dreading and putting it off. And then you will CRY, Ok? Remember how you don’t like mould? Vent your flippin’ roof.

When I was in the build stage I didn’t know that ventilation was a thing in roofs and regrettably, my logic did not lead me in the direction of figuring it out. Leaving holes in your ceiling may not seem obviously helpful, but believe me it is. I wrote a bit about the theory of it and the measures I took to try and make up for overlooking it here, but I knew, in my climate especially, it wasn’t going to be enough.

So I formulated a plan to rip down my entire ceiling assembly starting from scratch, and took 6 or so months to work up the gears to do it. And finally the time came.

This was one of the least pleasant things I have ever done. Second only, perhaps, to mucking several months worth of waste from at least 7 baby goats all crammed into an 8×12 Norwegian barn where the air within was so strong that any metallic object on your person tarnished purplish black upon contact and your lungs could stand maybe 2-3 minutes inside before breathing became improbable.

I may have smelled better after fixing my ceiling than I did after the goat crusades, but it was right on par with the horrible. Every item in the house; every curtain, pencil and shoe removed or blockaded in the pink room. Every intentionally placed board of my ceiling ripped down. Every fluff of my wool insulation covering my counters, dish rack, hair and floor until the whole house was a foot deep in sheep. It did awful things to my psyche to see my beautiful home turned inhospitably back into a construction site.

Like many unpleasant things, I have blocked out most of the four, 11 hour days it took to do this thing from start to finish. I suppose it’s fitting then, that we seem to have somehow lost or deleted the camera card with all the photos, so I only have a few from my phone. And they are mostly blurry…oi. Anyway, here’s the basics of how it went down.

After the insulation was out and the ceiling boards were stacked and numbered to keep the order, came the work of scrubbing off varying degrees of greyish black mould, drilling vent holes at the soffits and ridge, and putting up baffles.

I opted to make my own version of baffles with 1×1 redwood strips and roofing felt. Somehow I thought it might be cheaper, or easier or…something. I don’t know. Never works out that way. Without a chop saw on site, I ended up using an axe to hack up the wood strips. Efficient I was not, but it did make for some pretty good therapy.

Without enough electric capacity at the house to run a hair dryer, let alone power tools of any variety, my boyfriend filled the air compressor (to run the nail gun) from our landlord’s garage and drove back up to refill it whenever we ran out. After the baffles were in place, the insulation and ceiling boards went back up and we got to navigate the human errors in our haphazard numbering system. Ascension of numbers and the difference between left and right are apparently still a work in progress for me.

In the end it was a very important redo and I’m glad I didn’t wait any longer. Still, if someone asked me right now if I’d rather take my ceiling down again or wrangle that barn, it’s hands up for goat shit.

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About ellaharp

I am a musician and artist just out of college. During the last year of my degree in Scotland I caught the bug and have since become infatuated with the practical coziness of tiny houses. I worked my tail off, saved my money and, despite my complete lack of carpentry know-how, I shall build one, it shall be marvelous, and I shall call it Little Yellow :)

43 responses »

  1. God Bless you kid. I’ve been following you from Day 1 and let me say in your place I would have hired professionals and thrown in the towel. BUT, as usual, you gathered up your courage and tackled the onerous job with your pal. Wow! Can tell, even from those pics, a bit of how horrible it was and how sad to rip apart the initial hard work of building that pretty ceiling. Once again, your patience and perseverance paid off in spades and you will be enjoying a healthier home for the long future.
    Good Girl! You’re a G.D. inspiration to the young folks who would be daunted by the prospect of building their own homes. Joan (soon to be 85 but still truckin’)

  2. Hopefully your post will help someone else not make a mistake. I’m sorry it was so horrible. I’m sorry you know personally that mucking out the goats is a terrible job. I’m proud of you for making a go of it in your tiny home.

  3. It’s frustrating that the pros and the experts aren’t willing to share their valuable experience and info on stuff like this. I researched for weeks and talked to numerous ‘pros’ before deciding to compromise and half-vent my roof insulation (most of the pros I spoke to hmmed and hawed before giving non-committal type answers). Your post is the very first tiny-house-specific that i’ve seen that’s ever addressed it and what happens when you don’t add venting.

  4. Thank you for sharing this story! Great job getting this taken care of yourself! I’m very impressed at your commitment and dedication to your little home 🙂 Like someone else said, I might have given up and shelled out the money to have someone else handle it – but you stuck it out and grew because of it! Very inspiring. Good luck on your future endeavors!

  5. We met you at the Tumbleweed workshop in Vancouver in February! We did some research and found that the moisture that causes mold comes from humidity inside the house seeping into roof cavity and condensing when it touches the colder sheathing. It sounds like having an impervious vapor barrier on the warm side of the roof is the most effective way of preventing excess moisture in the cavity. We are venting as a backup as well. Only time will tell if this method works! Here are two videos showing how we went about this whole process. Hope everything works out for ya!

  6. Mistakes are how we learn. There are no bad mistakes, only learning experiences unless we can not learn from them and we can not fix them. Rule of thumb on anything is that no matter what you think you have covered, there is always something you did not anticipate that you will need to fix. We are always learning until we are dead, unless we are too stubborn to learn. The weight thing is important, but remember that the trailers are not geared for constant weight either. A bridge can hold tons for a time, but is not intended to hold tons constantly and there are always consequences for things being used for things they weren’t intended to be used for. So, all there is to do is to figure out a way to fix it or no longer worry about it. Just don’t give up, for it is only then that you fail. Though, if you choose to take your life in another direction, that is entirely different. 🙂 Take care, and good luck.

  7. What a nightmare, Ella!

    Jake and Kiva are right. The best way to ensure this doesn’t happen again is by installing some sort of vapor barrier on the interior side of your insulation so that the warm moist air isn’t allowed to get anywhere near those surfaces that are going to, invariably, drop to temperatures below the dew point. That goes for the walls and floor too, ideally, but the roof is the most vulnerable place for the kind of damage that has been wrought (pun intended).

    As it stood, your only vapor barrier was on the exterior of the roof in the form of the waterproof materials that keep the rain out and, to a large degree, the plywood on which they are fastened. Having a vapor barrier on the cold side of a wall, or roof actually works against you, so venting to allow the moist air that has been condensing on the underside of your sheathing is a huge step forward. Putting up some 6mm polly or (if you’re not into polly) tar paper or aluminum flashing or

  8. Thank you so much for sharing your list. I think it’s important to share not just the ups, but also the downs during this process. I have a list of my own called “Lesson’s learned” and just added some tiny-house prep related things that I hope will help others as they start out living tiny.

  9. Aloha! My name is Valarey and I am just so inspired by your story! I have religiously researched tiny homes since first frothing over the Netflix documentary, “Tiny”. I can’t stop picturing my life in my self-built and decorated little space that I can call my own. I currently live in Hawaii but was born and raised in southern California-the place I think I’m ready to rekindle my lost love with. I have so many questions for you if you’re up for schooling me on this awesome topic.
    Mahalo for your time!

  10. Hi Ella,

    I’m curious about this because I’ve just purchased sheep’s wool for my own build, I live in Georgia, and had not previously considered venting the roof. We had also decided to go anti-vapor barrier in fear of trapping moisture in the walls. Oregon Shephard said most of their customers also decide to forgo vapor barrier…

    Do you think the fact that you live near water may have contributed to the problem? Also, is your bathroom vented, or did you have any other methods of controlling humidity in your house?

    I’m sure it really sucked, and was even tough to blog about. Thanks for sharing your experience, though!

    • Ella,

      I am also getting ready to use sheep’s wool for my build. Hopefully you can answer before I dive to far into the project – any regrets being up north? I am building in California, but plan on living where ever the wind might take me. My family is mostly in Iowa which gets plenty wet/cold. I am concerned with the R value of wool (and molding). Any tips? Any thoughts about your wood burning stove?

      • No regrets or problems with the wool, I love it. It does have a lower R value than others out there but for me it’s worth it. I would definitely recommend having a wood stove in your climate, that will keep you raosty toasty regardless of the weather. Love my Kimberly!

  11. I don’t care what anybody says, we girls can do anything we damn please!

    I just found your blog and its been exciting to look at your journey of building your own house!!! I’m working on building one of my own right now (currently putting siding on), and looking at your blog has me suuuper inspired and excited to work on my house tomorrow!

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  15. You are amazing. You inspired me at the Dallas work shop last year. You are still teaching me and inspiring me. I’ve finished my tiny house and live it. I hug it every day.

  16. Makes me not even want to start…with having no job for being sick with an FMLA (Family Medical Leave Act) in place, and having it not even matter…I do not even at this time have any umph to even think about a tiny house anymore. My depression has gotten the better of me. I am ready to quit even before I have begun.

    • Sorry to hear that. It’s easy to get overwhelmed when embarking (or choosing to embark) on a life changing project, especially with other setbacks clouding progress. I think of mistake making as part of the human experience; I believe it’s better to have built, then rebuilt than to have never built at all. Best of luck

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  19. How did the wool itself hold up? Was it moldy? Were you able to dry it out and reuse it? Did you have to buy more to replace it with? Or did you choose to insulate with something else entirely? I have looked several times in your article and in the comments to see if you already mentioned it. Sorry if I missed it somewhere. I am in the super early research stages and have been strongly leaning towards the wool insulation over other options.

    • The wool itself appeared to be perfectly fine even before letting it air/sun dry and we just put it right back in. Still pleased with my insulation choice and wouldn’t use anything else 🙂

  20. you would not need venting if you sprayfoamed the insulation…worth the extra cost. Hows that horse trough working out? Do you have a good exhaust fan?

    • I would’t indeed, I just don’t like spray foam. And venting my roof properly would not have been a big deal if I had just done it off the batt, oi! Don’t use the horse tough very often, too much condensation for my climate.

      • I just found your site while doing some tiny home research, and you’re awesome! You’ve accomplished more than most ever will in building your own home.

        I know this is a year and half late but I think you may need to address your venting a bit further. I am concerned that you don’t have a ridge vent, from what I can see, that would let the moist air escape as it rises to the peak. It is likely that the moisture is now trapped at your ridge and will condense there. It may be possible to retrofit a ridge vent by removing your ridge shingling and cutting off the top inch or so of your roof sheathing just below your ridge beam. Then install a ridge vent on the exterior. This would allow the warm moist air to circulate up through your soffit vents and out at the ridge. I don’t think a gable end or mushroom vent stack will work because there is no flow of air between your rafter bays.

        I also think closed cell sprayfoam unvented rooves are a good solution for tiny homes, for structural reasons as well as the dewpoint/condensation reasons, but I completely understand your reservations. Good luck with your tiny home and your “airy fairy” life by the ocean!

  21. I love how honest you are!
    I don’t see a lot of people publishing about what can and has gone wrong! Building is no cake walk but somehow it always seems that way from the outside.
    What you posted here can help a lot of people. 🙂

  22. Spray foam insulation that my parents used in 1970s while having great R value and easy installation in old house off gassed bad fumes giving product bad reputation. Modern products can be environmentally friendly and recycled. It can help stiffen the structure and block noise, but, requires professional installation. A big down side is it makes any future electrical changes more difficult.

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