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From Texas-sized 2 Tiny House For Three

Seven (potentially) Deadly Sins of Tiny House Building

My dad, a dual-degreed chemical engineer-chemist, does what’s called Process Hazards Analysis (PHA for short), which are exactly what they sound like: an analysis of the various processes that take place in a given chemical plant and the hazards they entail. He also reviews incident reports when chemical plants explode or have fires. While I’m no chemical genius like my dad (I’m adopted, and I think my chemistry teacher gave me a C in high school so she wouldn’t have to put up with me the following year), I am smart enough to be able to look back on the situation and find all the red flags of sorts that should have clued us in that we were getting too lax with our safety regimen.

Needless to say, here’s the list of the problems I identified as mentioned in the post “Burning Down The House… Almost.” READ AND LEARN!

Problem #1: Improper general waste storage. While it was convenient, hanging a giant trash bag on the wall of our house-in-progress was probably not the best idea. Yes, it made it easy to toss the various scraps of building material into one container while we worked, but see Problem #4 for why it’s still a bad idea. Trash needs to be store outside in a locking container away from the house itself.

Problem #2: Not being mentally present while working with potentially hazardous materials. Brandy is in college. I work two jobs. R.A.D is a rambunctious three-year-old. We are building a tiny house ourselves while preparing to sell our big house. Add all those things together and you have a plethora of reasons to be distracted, and each one of them contributed to this disaster. It’s not easy to be mindful and present in one’s work, particularly with a toddler at your feet clamoring for some much-deserved attention, but when dangerous products are involved it pays to block out the “noise” and focus on the task at hand. If that means we only work on the house when R.A.D is in school or napping, that all college work is done in advance, and that I turn off my work e-mail while we work, then so be it. Better to be chronically running behind on the build than to burn the house to the ground because we’re focused on other things.

Problem #3: Using the wrong tools for the job. While paper towels actually worked just fine for the staining projects we were working on, they are both highly wasteful due to their single-use status and are even more flammable than fabric rags – both characteristics of which make them a poor choice for using with flammable liquids. We should have found more cloth rags for the job, but we took the easy way and used what was readily available. You can see how well THAT turned out!

Problem #4: Not thoroughly cleaning up after each and every single workday. This is related to Problem #1 in that the added waste from all the miscellaneous jobs we’ve been working on provided additional flammable materials for the fire to burn. While the extra scraps amazingly didn’t seem to worsen this fire, the saw dust collection alone could have caused a fire with or without any help from spontaneous combustion. Sure, we cleaned the paint brushes out daily, but in the time it takes to clean out one paint brush (about 5 minutes per brush if done correctly) we could easily have swept up all the random debris and dust. This is also related to Problem #2 in that we let outside matters distract us from the day-to-day cleanup we should have been doing.

Problem #5: Trying to do too much work in too little time. We are obviously busy people with crazy schedules and little free time. As such, we try to cram as much work as possible into the brief bursts of free time with good weather that we have to work on the house, and this has led to us not being as diligent about clean up. It also means that we may be working so fast that we’re actually creating potential problems where none existed before, and we’re simply moving too fast to notice it. We need to slow down the pace, accept that we might not make our self-imposed deadlines, and then come to a full stop at the end of each day to make sure we cleaned up properly and thoroughly.

Problem #6: Using the tiny house shell as a workshop. Since we are building our house on my dad’s property and have been trying very hard to keep all our waste and materials contained in as small an area as possible so as not to disturb his land any more than necessary, we have taken to doing lots of wood cutting and staining inside the tiny house itself. That leads to dust build up without regular removal and increases the risk of us accidentally damaging the house itself, like breaking a window while moving heavy pieces of wood around or, as we’ve already done, spilling oil-based stains on the floor that could ignite. Eventually this is going to be our house – not a storage shed on wheels – and it’s time we start acting like that.

Problem #7: Improper storage of potentially hazardous materials. We’ve also stored about a dozen different flammable liquids stacked on the floor, piles upon piles of raw wood products stacked throughout the house, and have several bundles of plastic roofing shingles in various places. In other words, we’ve created an even bigger fire hazard than a wood box on wheels inherently is on its own. As such, we’ve moved ALL liquids – flammable or not – into a metal, ventilated storage shed we made out of some leftover wood and new corrugated metal siding. It’s ugly and takes up space on my dad’s lawn, but the other choice is a burned down house. Easy pick!

So, there you have it. I’m sure there are many other warning signs we missed that could have prevented this mishap, but these seven certainly cover the biggest issues. All of them, however, can be rolled into just one: trying to do too much too fast. There’s a saying that all projects have three goals – fast, cheap, and good – and you only get to pick two. I think after this experience we’ll be dropping our second choice – “fast” (because we’ve never cared too much about the overall price) – and just sticking with “good.”

Will we be ready to go to the Tiny House Jamboree in early August? Maybe. Will we be ready to move to Colorado in time for me to take the job transfer in late August? Hopefully. Will we forget those two deadlines exist and focus entirely on making our house safe, sturdy, and high quality? ABSO-EFFING-LOUTELY!

So, do yourself a favor and take a day off from actual work on your tiny house build to do a thorough safety sweep of your work space. Upgrade your waste cans. Separate your hazardous chemicals from other flammable building materials. Get a fire extinguisher (or two). Take time to re-read ALL the warning labels on your various products. Start searching for reputable electrical and plumbing contractors to come inspect your DIY work before you close up your walls. Do whatever it takes to make sure you, your loved ones, and your house are as safe as they can possibly be.

Spontaneous combustion is real and possible no matter how infrequent it may be in the grand scheme of all causes of fire. You now know of someone who’s been through it, so skip the other six degrees of separation between us and make any changes you must to avoid becoming a statistic like us.

All in the name of safety,



P.S. I have two real degrees of separation from Kevin Bacon for those playing at home. πŸ˜‰ I went to high school with Elizabeth Shue’s cousin, and Elizabeth Shue was in the movie Hollow Man with Kevin Bacon. Beat that! πŸ™‚ hehe

One comment on “Seven (potentially) Deadly Sins of Tiny House Building

  1. Pingback: Burning Down The House… Almost | TinyHouse43.com

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