Towards a better tinyhouse

Inventing to freedom?

Archive for October 2010

Are you folks robots or something?

with 3 comments

The post was apparently read at least 21 times, and only one person answered the question I posed. I can’t believe that not one other reader of that post had heard about the conference and didn’t come.

Come on people. I’m willing to put some effort and time in here, but I need you to do your (very) small part before I can do mine.

I need that data, and there is no other way for me to get it other than for you to give it to me.


Written by gregor

October 31, 2010 at 19:17

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VirtualTinyhouseCon summary, and plans for next time.

with 6 comments

Well first of all, where were you guys and gals??

However, more importantly, I have a question for anyone who reads this post and knew about the con:

If you didn’t come, why not?

If you have even the slightest desire to see the VirtualTinyhouseCon happen, please answer. It might be a trivial reason, like you forgot or whatever, that’s still info I need and can use. I don’t at all mean to come across as mopey, just that this is the only way I can get this information.

Now, it only takes a few seconds to answer this question, and you are welcome to do so anonymously if you prefer. Because I can’t read your mind, and I’m not going to try. If my blog stats say there are 12 people who read this post, there should be 12 comments below. Ball’s in your court, you can hit it back, or drop it. (Redemption challenge: if you don’t answer, say why you prefer not to. 🙂

To post completely anonymously, you can use a proxy like . the comment will be transferred to the spam bin and you won’t see it appear, but I will check the spam bin manually to see the comments.

I promise to read all your comments and integrate any suggestions and try to correct any deficiencies revealed by them, for the next Con.

The announcement post got about 300 views, 85 people clicked the test links, and 4 people showed up. Anla’s wifi was on the blink, so it was really just the 3 of us.

Nevertheless, we went on for almost an hour about our stories, the zoning issue, some about toilet and water stuff, the future of the VirtualTinyhouseCon, and more.

So I want to incorporate some improvements and try holding it again.

None of us used the video or audio features, though it seems clear there are some deficiencies with text only, as there are typos, the typing delay, and it’s clear there was some talking at cross-purposes that happened, etc. But, although 3 is not a statistically significant sample, I think it might as well be using Tinychat again until the A/V features are used, because it certainly has basic A/V capabilities if they are desired. Personally I didn’t use the audio because my background was pretty noisy, and my microphone is kind of far from my mouth and you can’t hear yourself, so I was concerned it would just transmit a bunch of annoying noise when I pushed the Push To Talk button. And my webcam has a (hardware, I think) problem right now where it’s all blurry.

Anyway, it has so far been suggested that I keep minutes, and maybe have a (sub-) theme, like “supplies: scavenge or buy?”, and set an end time.

Written by gregor

October 30, 2010 at 16:25

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VirtualTinyhouseConference #1 is was happening now.

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It was fun, and I’ll put up a summary of the event when I get time.

Written by gregor

October 27, 2010 at 19:58

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Reading material about history and politics of zoning and stuff

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What I was going to do was search my own browser history to get the documents that I thought were the best I have read, but firefox’s history search thing doesn’t work. Anyway, I found some of the docs again, and some new ones, too.

However, before you start reading, I just wanted to say, that I really think you have to be aware of post hoc (and other types of) rationalizations. There are really a lot of those. Nicholas Taleb says it well in his book The Black Swan, people are extremely prone to coming up with these – ask someone (especially an adult) why world war I started, and they will mumble something about a prince being killed. The truth is the exact info on why has been lost to history, and in fact may not have been recorded by historians proper, or been available to the public anyway. Most likely that was just an excuse, or just sort of assumed to be the cause.

Ask why cities have zoning and people will sigh, wave, and say something about preventing bad things from happening, like someone building and airport next to a residential area. Whatever the original purported reasons, zoning, like the police, is used for anything and everything that people can get away with, the supposed “reason” for it means nothing, and is always changing. It’s a tool, and excuse. Most of the “reasons” given are excuses people came up with once they decided they want something, of course….

For example, there was one document that I wanted to include but couldn’t find, in which it was noted that almost all the rationalizations for banning mobile homes are clearly not based on reality, e.g. that people who live in them move frequently, but the truth is (and I remember the numbers) residents of site built homes live on average for 54 months between moves, and residents of mobile homes, 49 months. And yet that “reason” has been used for ages. Never mind whether or not it would even make sense if it were true i.e. actually do a community any net harm, which most likely no one has even checked, given that no one had even checked to see if it is in fact true, which is pretty easy, just look at the change of addresses in the right government database(s).

Plus even if it did, you can’t just consider the local community, the government is supposed to work for *everyone*….


Of course you won’t care about these, but you can find the equivalent for your own locale:

Example of rationalizing, practically propaganda, in info given out by the government, they conveniently don’t mention any of the downsides, not that I think zoning is inherently bad, but they are being grossly dishonest: minutes, search it using the google site: operator to see de facto how they do things

From the blogs, I’m sure there are many more, would be nice if these could be rounded up and added to the tinyhousewiki (heck, that could go for a lot of stuff): I disagree with most of what this says, I would not expect, for instance, a single individual cozying up to local politicians to work for beans, but with a group certainly interesting, and it seems like really the only long term, practical solution. Garden suites discussion paper, pretty good. IIRC this is where the $5000 net reduction in surrounding property values was referred to. Would be nice to see the original study. That’s not for the neighboring properties, but for all them put together. In other words a fraction of a percent the total value. And that calculation excluded other factors such as higher density which may easily more than counteract the supposed loss of value.

Says laneway housing seem to increase, not decrease, property values: Some on the history of mobile homes and stigma, also some stuff about how treating mobile homes as real estate tax-wise would be better, leading to a cascade in which banks are more willing to finance them, and they don’t depreciate as fast. Lots of references, I bet lots of good stuff to find by following those trails.

Only portrays rosy side of what other people think while obviously the nasty side is actually far more dominant:

Zoning people don’t or at least didn’t really know what they are doing that much anyway:

Problems with zoning and how it raises prices (100% directly!) and cause a lot of the financial crisis, also points put how homeowners abuse policy to jack up prices, but I don’t get why you couldn’t do it better, and get the best of both approaches:

The “Circumventions” part seems to indicate developers are getting an absolute ton of free money when land is re-zoned, but that would need more looking into, presumably any rational municipality would auction off the rezoned land so they get the money: also note the use of zoning for racist purposes and the housing affordability section. You know I’m Canadian. but I tell you, most of what is on the web in english is inevitably US-centric.

Redlining even in the 90s tangentially related “FHA appraisal manuals instructed banks to steer clear of areas with “inharmonious racial groups” and recommended that municipalities enact racially restrictive zoning ordinances, as well as covenants prohibiting black owners.”

Just a few random examples of how zoning is abused, I can’t believe the no working at home thing, also aesthetic restrictions are far more common than they say here, in fact they are the norm everywhere in residential neighborhoods (and there’s nothing new about it) : also, the values vs. prices thing again, and the big, flashy, spectacular examples might be good for argumental purposes, but they are not at all the big story, rather there are effects less likely to get in a newspaper which are far more damaging to the actual population and, far more meaningful.

Also, couldn’t really find any further info abut that house being bulldozed situation except and and the city seems to be Skaneateles .

Need to get the documentation on all those judicial decisions and stuff for all those court cases.

Written by gregor

October 24, 2010 at 15:40

Posted in Uncategorized

VirtualTinyhouseConference #1 Scheduled for 8:00 PM ET Wednesday, Oct 27

with 7 comments

Be here! I scheduled a blog post to appear with a few links, like the ones below:

VirtTinyhouseCon1 Room 1
VirtTinyhouseCon1 Room2: The Zoning Problem

Click on those links to test your webcam and stuff.

I figure, it’s been about a week and a half now since I posted those notes on chat platforms, and the dismal state of the art. (Mr. cheerful, I am) And no one else has started the conference, so I figure something is better than nothing.

TinyChat actually seems to be the best option, I think, for the first time, to gauge interest. I wouldn’t mind paying $100 bucks or something, actually, to get something better for a month, but that doesn’t seem to be available anywhere, or if it is there is no free trial for it, because I basically tested everything that I could that had a trial or demo, and the video quality etc. is no better than the free tinychat. There is camfrog and those ones that want the ~$300 license fees, but who’s to say they are much, if any, better overall. TinyChat seems to feature good audio quality, and its simple, no signup, no muss, no fuss. I mean, it works better than a teleconference, and that is useable.

I chose the time 8:00 pm ET because that seems to be in the zone when the largest fraction of America starts watching TV, and Wednesday because it is a week from now, so people have sometime to hear about it. No force on earth can unglue someone from the tube once they start watching, but who in their right mind would rather watch TV when they could be chatting with other witty, hip, open minded, and incredibly attractive tinyhouse enthusiasts? You can watch that TV show anytime. This is a grassroots virtual conference about Tinyhouses!

WordPress doesn’t tell me how many unique hits this blog gets a week, but it got 117 last week (lol, not much as blogs go, but I don’t aim to please) and seems to get 17 a day regularly. So maybe roughly 17 readers. Hey, 3 is a party. Tell other tinyhouse enthusiasts if you get the chance, and I will put an invitation up on the tinyhouseforum.

We’ll see, anyway, we’ll see.

*Edit: Note about time zones: This doesn’t change anything, but it is the Eastern Time zone, which is presently on that stupid daylight saving thing until the first Sunday in November, so that means the con is at 8:00 pm in Ottawa, UTC-04, really I should not refer to it as EST, sorry, but that is one of the terms used for it*

Written by gregor

October 19, 2010 at 21:38

Posted in Uncategorized

Exterior cosmetic veneer

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So anyway, just as an idea to improve appearances or mimic an expensive look without as much cost, I went looking for “exterior veneer”. It looks like it is available, both in wood and stone, and I wonder if there are other materials, too.

Looks like it could hep a bit with the cost/performance ratio… Also, it seems like it could be interesting to use stone veneer, I don’t know how thick it is, but if you could get some thin stuff maybe it wouldn’t be too heavy. Who expects something that is apparently be made of stone, to be portable?

As mentioned in the note on the right, the zoning barrier to practical tinyhouses is really the doozy. Based on what I have read in some papers including that one about garden suites I think I posted on this blog (I’ll try to get that up again here later, I have a draft post with a bunch of reading material on the zoning issue for ya in the works), people make gut instinct decisions when they see a garden suite, or other tinyhouse-like thing, and will end up objecting to it if they don’t like the appearance of it. Let me be clear here, too, that when they object, they don’t say “It no look pretty! No like!”, no doubt partly because it is obvious that you shouldn’t really be preventing progress based on such a trivial concern, and so they don’t want to admit it.

But there is more to it. Even people who will are decent enough to agree that appearance shouldn’t be a major issue, that there are more important things in this world, will still have a problem with it. They will likely come up with post-hoc rationalizations about why they don’t like it, like “introduces transience to the community” etc. etc., and good luck trying to tell people that these don’t really make any sense. Even if you do, they might just come up with an endless supply of vague objections, or over-value any legitimate ones. And fat chance telling them they are just being irrational – and if they, at the end of the day, don’t like it, and other people are like that too, and can’t practically be convinced otherwise, let’s face it, it doesn’t really matter that there are not being reasonable. They no like, they no like, and there aren’t anywhere near enough protections in our country – or rather I should say culture, perhaps – against this sort of thing. Plus it could still lead to a legitimate concern, namely reduction in property prices “values” (though tinyhouses can increases property prices plenty, too sometimes (including due to density increases), and even when it does decrease it, that is usually a very small amount, like $5000 on a whole house, which frankly is just part of normal fluctuations anyway – if you can’t handle that, remember tampering with the market to artificially prop up prices is only going to lead to disaster, as it is doing now, as reality must catch up to you eventually).

So I think the cosmetic appearance is really quite an important feature for a tinyhouse, until they are fully permitted, as the MedCottages have been in Virginia, for instance. And improving public perception would help with that a good deal. Frankly the tumbleweeds would never have been featured on yahoo news, or in glamor-mag, or whatever it has been, if they didn’t look so positively charming.

But, to me, the good news is that there are already a lot of people focused on appearance, and great stuff being done there – hell, “design” to most people, means cosmetic design.

Written by gregor

October 18, 2010 at 08:09

Posted in Uncategorized

Toilet solutions for a tinyhouse roundup and roundaround.

with one comment

Yes, I just made up that word. It means speculation and stuff around existing solutions, in addition to existing ones.

Anyway, I’ve been following the “alternative toilets” thread on the tinyhouse forum, and a few days ago I read the Humanure Handbook (his term for human piss & crap is “humanure”). Interesting book, for sure, but I don’t agree with everything he says. He mentions a book, Compost Engineering, that sounds interesting, too, and I think I would have to read more about this before attempting homebrew improvements – or rather adaptation to a tinyhouse context – of the composting process.

But I was thinking of more general improvements:

1. Place whatever composter there is outside the habitable area, so if it does malfunction it is easier to clean up, while the receptacle is obviously better inside. To do this without water, you could use a Teflon toilet bowl and tube, to transfer the humanure outside. In a previous post, I posted a link to a site selling teflon sheet that could be used to make this. Teflon’s pretty amazing stuff, I wonder how well this would work. I wonder if you could figure out a “dry flush” mechanism, which prevented any humanure from sticking to any visible area of the toilet bowl automatically, that might be more acceptable to a lot of people, and non-stick materials would certainly help. I tried to find out more about Nasa’s air-flush toilet, but no dice.

2. Decide what you want (see below). If we can complete the nutrient cycle, that’s great, but if you just wanted disposal, an idea that occurs to me is that you could dry the piss and crap by evaporation, as an “air head” or “nature’s head” does (BTW, it is clear from the info in the humanure handbook, mainly because of the temperature and size of the storage chamber, that no meaningful decomposition is actually occurring in these toilets, rather they are just drying the material, i.e. they are, rather, desiccating toilets, and only the crap, not the piss), then pasteurize it, and it would be perfectly safe to put in the municipal garbage. You can get odor proof bags, made with foil-plastic laminate material, though as stated in the marketing material of these toilets, it does not smell when dry.

Or maybe you could find a gardener that would be happy to take it, but that seems like a hurdle. Crap takes up quite a small amount of space when dried – a human outputs about only 60 grams of solids per day in feces, and the rest of the crap is water.

Disposing of the (sterilized) urine on a lawn also seems like a very simple solution. The problem is that it might require a large lawn area for full time use. Would have to check that, If you have a drip or subsurface greywater system anyway, just increase the size, and, it could be perfect.

Bizarrely, the author of the humanure handbook does not mention pasteurization even once in the whole book . Yet from the data he gives about temperature-time treatments required to kill pathogens, it is clear that this would not be hard at all. I suggest the (dedicated) use of a kitchen appliance of some sort. A slow cooker might be good. I noticed you can get temp-resistant plastic slow cooker liners, basically plastic bags, you could line the storage chamber of the Nature’s head (or more practically a homebrew version for a fraction the cost) with a bag, then every month or two, you just tie it shut with a twist tie, and put it in the slow cooker for 10 minutes, and it is microbiologically safe. They are made to reliably reach the necessary temperatures, because they have to for food safety.

In all fairness, doing this on a large scale might not be a good idea, because some units would malfunction, some people would be too lazy to do the pasteurizaton step, etc, but you could certainly make a unit that performed the operations automatically, and refused to release the material until it had been pasteurized. In the Dymaxion house, a futuristic house by Buckminster Fuller, this approach of putting the humanure in the garbage rather than mixing it with water, was used, but I don’t know if they dried or even pasteurized it.

3. A water content sensor. One of the problems with dry composting is that it can only be done within a narrow water content range. You can get inexpensive sensors made to measure the water content of soil, so you might use one of these to measure the water content of the compost pile without user intervention, and water the pile if needed.

There are a lot of different toilet options out there for toilets of all sorts , looking something up on wikipedia, and following the links gives a view of some of the options. I think it’s fair to say we are talking about several different functions these toilets provide:

1. Waste disposal to avoid transmissible diseases.
2. Keeping the smell and mess down, or at least somewhere else from the habitable area.
3. Completing the nutrient cycle.
4. Preventing environmental pollution (undesirable release of nutrients, chemicals, and bacteria in the wrong place).
5. Prevent contraction of non-transmissible diseases like an e-coli infection.

These are not always connected that closely. Obviously it would be great to have all 5, but a compromise on some if you have to isn’t the end of the world. Traditional municipal systems are great at 1,2 and 5, but mostly fail at 3 and 4, and are ridiculously expensive, and social problems may prevent them from being used (regulations and stuff would fall in this category). A desiccating-pasteurizing toilet seems like it would be pretty cheap and safe. Commercial composting toilets actually look a lot less impressive to me now that I know more about them – because, despite what the manufacturer’s claim, they are not so safe after all from a microbiological standpoint. (And, according to reviews they don’t work very well for disposal either.) As far as I can tell they do not (could not) achieve the high temperatures needed to kill all pathogens in the timeframe in which they work (storing material for 3 to 6 months). It does help a fair bit, though.

In a tinyhouse, you also want to do it without:
1. Suffering from misunderstandings from bad neighbors.
2. Costing too much, including power consumption if off grid.
3. Needing a whole lot of maintenance.
4. Taking up much space.

So it seems like a thermophilic composter would be a lot better. But, like I said, I think I would have to read more to really make any decisions or try to design something.

Stepping outside the box for a second, you have to ask yourself why, exactly, people prefer flush toilets over dry. I assume it is because they flush the humanure completely away, and it is covered immediately while the toilet is being used, preventing any smell, and there is no exposed pile of other people’s crap below, which you are granted the privilege of gazing upon, and which kinda seems like it might splash up somehow or something (whether or not it actually could).

In Japan the toilets they have do not cover the crap, and this shows in the odor around the bathrooms, but by sucking air into the toilet bowl, smell could be prevented. It seems like it is just the possibility of stuff sticking to the bowl, really, and the pile of crap exposed below. And then there is the engineering problem of getting dry material from one point to another, which seems to be the only other point in favor of flush toilets, because fluids are easy to move around. Still, society already has municipal disposal, recycling, and in some cities even compost collection, so after you get over any fecophobia, as long as humanure is reliably pasteurized, and the process is semi automated, I think dry toilet collection could indeed catch on, if the right toilet mechanism were developed… I think the sticking point is the dry flush mechanism. A roots blower like mechanism made of non stick stuff, and maybe rinsed with just a very small amount of clean water, maybe? Or maybe 2 telfon bowls, one in use while the other is automatically emptied and cleaned. Edit on 2010/11/01: Maybe it would be better not to have a flush mechanism at all. Just a nonstick tube, twisted so you don’t see the pile of stuff below. Humanure slides away immediately after being deposited. No moving parts. Negative air pressure is used to prevent any escape of smell. If the Tube was flexible and you didn’t want to have the airflow associated with this approach to preventing smell form entering the habitable area, you might add a moving part that squeezes the tube shut. That way there are no hinges, seams or whatever, exposed to the humanure. You still need the urine separation ability, apparently the most common approach is to use a front receptacle, and a rear receptacle. Another approach that occurs to me is to try to use the adhesive properties of the water, the effect which is so annoying when trying to pour a beer, causing the water to run preferentially along the side of the bottle. I.e. You have a single tube, with mixed solids and liquids coming down, then at the output of the tube have a rounded piece of glass (or other hydrophilic material) of the right shape, which gets the water sticking to it, then guides the water away to s separate chamber. One problem with this is that you get fecal contamination of the urine, which in some circumstances could be bad. One pro is that the urine rinses the transfer tube, but if it was a good nonstick material this might be unneeded anyway. It could also be used in tandem with the 2-receptacle approach, attached to the dry-matter output tube, just in case water is inadvertently dumped into the dry-only receptacle, it still separates most of the water, and puts it in the right container.

Anyway, other options, some from the thread, some of which might not be very practical, seem to include

1. Anaerobic digester. While reading up for the greywater MBR, I read some about these. Basically they only make sense if you need the methane for running an internal combustion engine, cooking, or a lot of water is already mixed with the waste material. The amount of methane you get per person of waste will not be near enough to do your cooking anyway. If you only want the heat, it would make more sense to burn the waste directly, you would get more energy out, and it is a much more compact system. Anaerobic digesters take quite a bit of space. They also require management sometimes, and the right input of nutrients.
2. Nature’s head and Air head, like I said, these seem to be basically desiccating toilets, and they don’t even deal with the piss, except to store it.
3. Sawdust toilet, see the Humanure handbook for details, the problem with this is that it seems to entail a big compost pile, and yet more chores.
4. Biolet, sun-mar, clivus multrum, etc, there are a dozen commercial composting toilet, and they are are ridiculously expensive, and most seem to get bad reviews.
5. Incinerating toilets seem to get bad reviews, and require a lot of energy. Also expensive.
6. So-called PETT, but this doesn’t seem practical for a tinyhouse.

Written by gregor

October 16, 2010 at 05:55

Posted in Uncategorized