Friday, April 27, 2012

A Tour of My Home

Welcome to a tour of my home! I live in a 12' x 14' canvas wall tent, and here's how the whole thing is put together!

Foundation and platform

My tent rests on top of a wooden platform that is constructed very much like a traditional deck. The platform rests on dry-stacked masonry blocks and is covered with 3/4" plywood (not shown). The wooden platform is not attached to the blocks, but just sits on top.

Masonry blocks and platform joists, ready for plywood subflooring


Canvas tent

The tent itself has an internal metal frame fashioned from 1" metal conduit and welded angle brackets (not shown). The internal metal frame is not attached to the platform, but just sits on top. The only thing that holds the whole contraption together is gravity, some ropes that secure the bottom of the canvas to the platform, and more rope that attach the top of the tent to stakes in the ground. The stakes are 2 1/2' pieces of 3/4" metal conduit driven into the ground with only about 3" revealed. The ropes have a 300 lbs working load. It's like a scene from Gulliver's Travels!

The canvas inner sanctum



Even though the canvas is waterproof, I still added a separate rainfly. My current rainfly is a 20' x 30' poly tarp. I'll upgrade it to a 25' x 30' vinyl tarp before winter. The rainfly is designed as a totally separate structure that flys a foot or so above the tent. This keeps snow loads off the metal tent frame, and allows air to circulate between the fly and canvas during summer months.

My initial design for the rainfly support consisted of two poles, one at front and one at back, connected by a strong rope and staked to the ground. It was sort of like a clothes line that the rainfly draped over. This design got me through one of the warmest Virginia winters in recent history! :) Actually, I'm very thankful that the winter of 2011-2012 produced so little snow in Virginia because I'm not sure how much load this structure would have tolerated. I upgraded this system in September of 2012 after a lot of trial-and-error. The new system is really just a beefed-up version of this original system.
20' x 30' poly tarp serves as a rainfly
With the platform built and my rainfly in place, I'm high and dry! I have never had any problems with moisture in the tent. And I'm prolonging the life of my canvas, albeit at the sacrifice of my protective rainfly. But then again, the tarp is 1/3 the cost of the canvas, and much easier to replace.

Finished exterior

Now, to finish the exterior, I added a wooden and Plexiglas door that I custom-built to fit this particular tent, a small 3' x 4' porch, and stair steps up to the entrance. A kerosene lantern lights the way!

My front door



My original kitchen consisted of a piece of plywood between two shelves.

Original kitchen
In October of 2012, I installed a new kitchen. The new kitchen is a definite improvement over my original make-shift setup.

New kitchen
I cook on a two-burner gas camping stove that is fuelled by a 20 lbs propane tank that stays outside the tent. A 10' adaptor hose connects the two. A single tank of fuel lasts more than two months, which is pretty good considering I heat most of my water on the gas stove.


I sleep on one of the most comfortable beds that I've ever owned! It sits on a sturdy frame made from 2 x 6s and a 3/4" plywood top, sort of like a workbench. The frame is pretty high, giving me plenty of storage underneath. The bedding consists of a futon mattress piled high with a variety of blankets and sleeping bags, and a feather comforter. It's a nest! And believe me, in the middle of those cold winter nights when the wood stove has burned down to coals, it's my best friend!





Okay, it's time to talk about my bathroom. This is where I always get a *lot* of questions, so let's get started!

Let me first say that my bathroom is...unconventional. And although it's fully functional (and by that I mean that you can do everything in this bathroom that you can in a modern American bathroom, and I mean *everything*) the way that you operate this bathroom is very different from what most people have ever experienced. (I actually give my first-time overnight guests a small training class on how to operate this bathroom!)

I'll add a separate post that goes into great detail about my bathing and personal hygiene, which is a *huge* topic, and one that I get asked about a lot. It's certainly deserves it's own post (in fact, the topic of solid human waste alone is probably worth an entire blog! :) ). But for now, let me just introduce you to how my bathroom is designed.

My bathroom consists of the following items and fixture:
  • Earth closet (EC, a.k.a. toilet). You can read all about my tent toilet in a separate post.
  • Dump sink. This is one of the most convenient fixtures in my bathroom. The dump sink is plumbed to a dry well. I use the dump sink for grey water. It sure beats going outdoors to dump waste water, and it's more sanitary.
  • Water containers. I carry in my water, and sit the water containers in my bathroom.
  • Wash tub. I do all of my washing in a white enamel wash tub.
  • Hot water pot. I use a stainless steel pot for hot water. I heat the water on my gas stove, then sit the pot on the bathroom vanity.
My original bathroom consisted of a piece of plywood on top of two wooden stools.

Original bathroom
 In October of 2012, I installed a new bath. I'm really happy with this one.

New bathroom


Wood stove

In the winter I heat my tent with a Yukon II wood stove. It has a 2 cubic foot firebox which provides a 6 to 8 hour burn time. The stove is specially designed for tents. It's lightweight and easy to install and remove. In fact, I remove the stove in the spring to make room for a clothes closet and extra seating for guests.

The Yukon II has a tent heating capacity of 14' x 16' at zero degrees, and 10' x 12' at 30 below. It really does the job, even during those bitter-cold, windy winter nights, as long as you tend to it properly.

I ordered my canvas tent with a pre-installed stove jack in the back wall. The stove jack consists of a sewn-in piece of heat-resistant fabric with a 5" hole in the center, just the right size to receive the 5" stove pipe required by the Yukon II. I just run 5" stove pipe from the stove, right out through the stove jack, and then extend it out and up, well away from the tent and rainfly. I'll add a separate post on wood stove installation and usage when I set it up again in the fall.

Wood stove

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Why a Wall Tent?

The idea of owning a portable house is very appealing to me. It frees me from having to own land and allows me to rent land instead. And full home ownership and portability meet two of my main requirements for housing. So I began searching for ideas on portable housing.

And a great way to get some ideas is to do a Google Image search for "portable housing"! Wow! (Give it a try, seriously!) I spent hours looking through the images. Running through the various pros and cons in my mind. Imagining what it would be like to actually live in some of those structures.

As I browsed and let my imagination go, I found myself attracted to one type of structure in particular: the tipi.


I just couldn't get away from the idea of living in a tipi! It's very portable, very economical, and to me it's very aesthetically appealing. And the more I thought about a fabric house, the more I liked it! From a maintenance standpoint, I could just replace the outer fabric every few years for a few hundred dollars and a few hours work. And the lack of insullation was both good and bad. It meant that I would stay very close to nature, hearing the morning song birds and evening raindrops (which I love!) and that I would immediately feel Winter's cold and Summer's heat (which is not so good)

But the tipi has some design problems. The opening at the top means that rain will enter and heat will leave. And the inside space is less than ideal for the human form. What was needed was a sealed roof, straighter walls, and a lower ceiling. Something like...a yurt!

Now we're talking! (And I sure do like the idea of an actual door!) But man, those yurt kits sure are expensive for what you get. And building one is kinda tricky with everything being round and all. Even building the circular platform seemed more complicated than it needed to be. Too bad it's not all square like...a wall tent!

Wall tent
Yep, a wall tent. A square tipi with straight walls, a sealed roof, and a low ceiling. I'll take it!

What About Land?

I need a place to put my house, and that means land. (I'll set houseboats aside for the moment.)

There are two basic strategies for securing land: I can own land, or I can rent it. But if I look a little closer at land ownership, I see that I never actually "own" it since I must forever pay property taxes to the county. So in effect I can only sort of "rent" from the county. The fundamental arrangement for securing land for my home is therefore to pay a certain amount per year, year after year, for the right to stay on that land. If I stop making payments, then I must leave the land. Okay, that's fair.

Another consideration is the relationship of my home to that land. Again, there are two basic arrangements: my home can be physically attached to the land, or it can be "mobile". If my home is attached, then my home and the land become one. Lose the land, and I lose my home. If I want to relocate to a different piece of land, then I must leave my attached home behind and find a new one.

And finally, there are economic considerations. I would like to have the perfect piece of land for my home based on my particular needs and desires. At this stage of my life that means a large piece of property near where I work that's quiet and peaceful. It has a river, nice views, and plenty of wildlife. A place for a garden, and maybe some chickens. But buying that kind of land can be expensive! And I don't really want to *own* the land anyway, I just want to *live* there. So the question becomes: how can I live on the perfect piece of land for the least amount of money per year?

Having framed the problem of land in this way, I decided to rent a spot for my home from an individual that already owns my perfect piece of land! (Of course this approach requires a "mobile" home that is not attached to the land.) Viewing my problem in this way transformed it from a land search to a person search. So now I had to find a person who:
  • Owns land that meets my needs and desires. Such as the right location, rivers, mountain views, garden spot, and so on.
  • Could use some extra income. Maybe I can help someone else make *their* property tax payments!
  • Are open minded. This is not a typically arrangement!
The last point of being "open minded" is perhaps the trickiest, because for all the people that meet the first two criterion, only a small percentage will be open minded enough to allow me to rent a spot on their land. That means advertising!

In October of 2011, I ran a Craigslist ad that was something like:
WANTED: Land to lease - $150/month (Rappahannock or Culpeper county)
Do you own land in Rappahannock or Culpeper county? Would you like to make an extra $150/month? I'll pay you $150/month to lease your land where I'll set up a platform wall tent (sort of a small, canvas house). This will be my home for the next 1 to 3 years. I want to live a simple life, close to nature. And I need your help!
I got a lot of responses from that one ad. And even though I didn't find the land I was looking for at that time, I'm convinced that Craigslist or similar advertising would yield results. In the end, a friend of mine offered to rent me a spot on his land, which I moved to in April 2012. It's very close to the $150/month that I was looking for, and I paid him a full year in advance so he got a decent chunk of money up front!

My Housing Requirements

In September of 2011, for a number of reasons, I found myself faced with a pressing problem. My life had taken some unexpected turns, as life does, and I was faced with the problem of having to find a home. I had a fairly stable job, so money wasn't a big problem. And the place where I was staying at the time was available for a few more months, so I had a bit of time to sort things out. But I was going to have to make a move pretty quickly, so I set about finding my new home.

My first thoughts were to push the problem down the road a little by becoming a room mate, or by renting a small place. But as I looked at those types of options, it became clear that I would be spending a lot of money to live in pretty undesirable conditions. I decided that I needed to step back and think through this problem.

What was I really looking for? What was important to me?

After some soul-searching, I came up with a list of considerations for my new home. I asked myself, "What would my dream home look like?", and this is what I came up with:
  • I own it. I own my home, like I own my truck or my clothes. No banks. No debt.
  • I design it. My home is very personal, and must be designed to meet my personal needs.
  • Portable. I have to be able to move to different locations as my life changes.
  • Low maintenance. All homes need maintenance, but maintenance is a cost, and such costs should be minimized.
  • Economical to operate. In terms of utilities and internal systems.
  • Relatively easy to acquire. I have three young granddaughters. Someday soon they will be solving their own housing problems. Maybe my new home can give them some ideas.
  • Healthy. Both in terms of impact to the environment, and lifestyle of the occupants.
  • Aesthetically appealing. According to my personal tastes.

I Live in a Tent

I live in a tent. It's a 12' x 14' canvas wall tent, and I've been living this way since November of 2011. How I came to this lifestyle is a long story, woven with threads that reach back throughout my life.

For the first time in my life, my home and lifetyle reflect many of the values that I hold dear, and that's a wonderful feeling. But there's a cost that comes with this lifestyle, too. Life is full of trade-offs, and we each get to choose the trades that we make. I've been fortunate that I've been able to choose tent living, a lifestyle that fits my personal needs and desires.

My front door