Austin Hay is a high school student in California. Over the last year or so, he’s spent his spare time acquiring materials and building a 130-square-foot house on wheels. He expects to finish in November, and then the 16-year-old will own his first home with zero debt.
Many of Austin’s materials were recycled and deeply discounted, found at scrapyards and donated by friends. Interior fixtures and finishes in particular cost him next to nothing. The framing looks like new dimensional lumber, so he didn’t skimp on the structural elements. In all, he estimates the project will cost $12,000… which makes his new house cheaper than a new car.
Austin credits his dad, who general-contracted their family’s big house a few years before the little house got going, with teaching him how to build. He says of the work, “My favorite part of my house is that it is mine and has my blood, sweat and hard work put into it.” You can read an inhabitat interview with him here.
I find Austin’s skill and dedication very impressive, but he’s not the only one: just look at 18-year-old Carson who spent his last summer vacation building Colin’s house and has similar plans this time around. You don’t need any special experience to build a house, just some guidance from a seasoned carpenter. And with dedication and a little ingenuity, you can do it with salvaged materials and save heaps of money.
Early in the week, a new insulating crew came to spray-foam Bob’s dormer roof, now that it had solid new sheathing. They did the job cleanly and allowed us to proceed to our next step: installing ceiling boards.
First we had to stain them. Hans and I took care of all the remaining tongue-and-groove boards with a painting pad and the same white pickling stain we used in the living room. We let them dry in the sun, then stashed them under the barn until go time.
The ceiling boards were 14 feet long uncut, and we tried to use as much of that length as possible. We came mighty close thanks to the rafters’ 2-foot spacing. (The master bedroom plus stairwell is 18 feet wide, but we needed to break on a rafter.) At the same time, Hans tried to mix up the joint locations, using the scraps from shorter cuts as starters for subsequent rows. It was necessary to line up the adjacent tongues at each joint so the next row would span properly.
Essential tools were a hammer to tap each board into the previous tongue, a chisel to use as a lever on stubborn boards, and a finish nail gun to secure the work to the rafters. I also used a jigsaw to cut out circular holes for the can lighting fixtures.
The last row is always the hardest. We had to close the gap with an angular ridge beam and a bunch of steel joist hangers, and the gap was a non-uniform width thanks to the sag of the ridge beam. I measured the width at each end and ripped the boards freehand (the table saw’s guide does no good when your width varies) to achieve the right taper. Then Mark hollowed out the back of the boards to accommodate all our obstacles without revealing anything from below. Finally, we picked our nail locations carefully to avoid all the joist hangers. We came mighty close to running out of ceiling boards (in part because I made some mistakes and ruined a couple) but we did finish the job.
The ceiling’s completion allowed Mark to fill the gap between the bathroom and the hall. He sliced some more salvaged barnboards to match the ceiling angle and installed them vertically atop the bathroom door header. Lookin’ sharp!
While Yestermorrow’s renovation class completely overhauled three walls downstairs, the rest of us finished some walls of our own up above. I spent the first part of the week piecing together barnboards for a bedroom wall that honors the house’s roots. Balancing the old with the new, Mark took charge of taping, mudding, and priming the drywall that clads the rest of the upstairs.
The barnboard wall first. It wasn’t even part of the plan until we were hanging drywall (say, two weeks ago) and realized the bedroom’s east gable end had two different planes. The original wall, under the end rafter, sits a good two inches back from the addition wall that completes the dormer. Bob could have directed us to shim out the lower studs by two inches, but instead he got creative. He decided to highlight the end rafter by contrasting the finish surfaces above and below. The job of completion fell to me, mostly.
First I hauled out lengths of curving salvaged barnboard and gave them the once-over with a chisel and brush, getting off as much gunk as possible. Then came the fun part: fitting these lengths together to cover the triangle. I ripped the longest piece with a table saw for a straight edge to place against the rafter itself. Then I matched the convex side of that piece with the concave side of another (sometimes using a jigsaw to improve the puzzle fit), cut both ends to the size of the triangle, and put it up with finish nails.
I’m very pleased with the result. The barnboards leave a few gaps, but that’s OK because Mark painted the plywood behind with a copper color that blends right in. Remember the hand-forged nails we found during demolition? I nailed a bunch of them into the barnboard’s existing nail holes, sanding the nail heads first for a silver sheen. Finally, to further fake authenticity, I brushed the boards with polyurethane. The coating not only protects the barnboard but also makes them shiny so the woodgrain stands out.
Mark helped me a lot with that wall, but his main concern was the dragged-out-by-necessity chore of converting raw drywall into perfectly flat walls. A good finish requires multiple coats of joint compound, aka mud, building up the cracks and recesses little by little and giving the mud 24 hours to dry between applications. Actually, Mark usually waited more than 24 hours… weather was chilly and wet this week and the mud dries faster when it’s hot and dry.
He kept his frustration at bay, though, and by Thursday he moved on to rubbing the walls smooth. Then he applying primer tinted with our eventual paint color. The sleek new steel-blue really makes these walls pop, and the old triangle of barnboard provides a pleasing counterpoint.