Saturday, October 19, 2019

Guest Review of Tin Can Homestead: The Art of Airstream Living

One of our correspondents writes with his notes on Tin Can Homestead:

Natasha Lawyer and Brett Bashaw needed a better place to live than their one-bedroom apartment in Seattle. Natasha also needed space for a pottery business. She wanted to make and sell pots. She would need a big space for a kiln, a pottery wheel and pottery inventory.

They put their possessions in storage and traveled the country for six months, in a Volkswagen camper, looking around. But they wanted the Seattle area to be the place. They have family there. It seems to be their hometown. But expensive. Very expensive.

They decided to have a tiny house, maybe out in the woods, someplace in the Seattle area. It would have to be tiny. A tiny house would be lots cheaper than a regular house.They decided to build it themselves. That would save even more money. It would be less expensive, out of pocket, than buying a tiny house, and their labor would not be taxed.

Building the tiny house depended more on Natasha Lawyer’s skills than on Brett Bashaw’s skills. Her father is a master electrician, and she worked with him, doing electrical work, for a year-and-a-half. Also, her father does carpentry and cabinetry, and she worked with him on that, too. Plus, she had been a designer at Anthropologie, a marketer of things to make women beautiful and their houses comfortable.

Natasha decided to rebuild an old Airstream trailer. She chose a 31-foot, 1971 trailer that someone else had mostly gutted. Tin Can Homestead: The Art of Airstream Living is her step-by-step story of that rebuild.

The story is mostly Natasha’s, but Brett wrote how he and his brother polished the exterior of the trailer. The polishing took 60 hours, so about 2 hours per foot of trailer length, using an electric polisher. Brett lists the tools and supplies needed for polishing, and he gives a useful description of the process.

They decided to rebuild the trailer in Seattle. It was a business risk to do that. What if they could not find space to live where they could also have a pottery business? Then they would have to pay for two different spaces. Could they afford it? It was hard enough to find space for a trailer house at a trailer park, let alone a trailer house and a pottery business.

The market for trailer spaces was tight. When they brought their trailer—a used one that had not been polished in years—to a trailer park, the manager said, “Who told you that you could bring that here?”

Natasha gives a lot of detail about her design process. She wanted a tiny house that would stay in one place, attached to the grid, not a tool for roaming around. So, she chose electricity for her stove, not propane. She thought that she and Brett would shower at the central facility of the trailer park where they lived, not in the shower stall of their own trailer. That help would keep the trailer dry. So, she put shelves in the trailer’s shower stall for storage but plumbed the stall for any future owner who might take the Airstream on the road.

She says Brett sleeps like a starfish, with his arms and legs spread out, all over the bed, forcing her to hang over the edge. So, she wanted a queen-size bed. She didn’t want anyone to climb over anyone else to get to bed, either. So, she designed the bedroom to have an aisle on each side of the bed. Then she reconsidered. A queen-size bed would be too small. So, she chose a king-size bed, even though it meant having only one aisle next to the bed.

Another decision she made about the bedroom was to put it at the far rear of the trailer, farthest away from the trailer’s front door. That way, no guest would have to pass through the bedroom to get elsewhere in the trailer. The result is a quiet, private bedroom, which she illustrates in her book with plenty photos and drawings.

She designed their only bathroom to be right outside their bedroom door, next to the kitchen. That way, they could reach the bathroom easily during the night, and guests could reach it easily, too.

Putting the bathroom next to the kitchen also simplified plumbing, keeping the necessary pipes as short as possible, given her other design decisions. She likes long counters, so she used a long space across the aisle from the bathroom for her kitchen counter and sink. She put her stove in the much shorter space between the bathroom and the front door. That made plumbing pipes between the kitchen and bathroom a little longer they would be if the kitchen sink counter and the bathroom were side-by-side.

Her living room uses all the space between the front door and the trailer hitch end of the trailer. It is a comfortable place with lots of windows, a big, comfortable day bed with storage underneath, a portable table for her drawing and writing, a bookcase, a stack of stools for guests, and lots of green plants.

She put green plants in every room, and she recommends a two-page list of plants good for growing in a trailer house. Plants help tie Natasha’s trailer design together. A beautiful wooden floor does it, too. It is made from cross-sectional slices of logs. The most important element, though, is its color scheme: white, with black accents. The white and black make the Airstream look brand-new and clean. It gives a more comfortable feel than the dark wood laminates often found in house trailers.

Natasha figured out how to curve the tops of walls to fit the Airstream’s curved ceiling. She illustrates her curve-fitting with a page of drawings, a photo, and a page of text. She built her own cabinets and other built-ins and illustrated it in 18 pages, with 15 photos and 2 drawings.

She is especially proud of making a tile back splash for her kitchen counter. She shows it, or parts of it, in 18 different pages of her book. Her best tip about tile is: use small pieces, so the back splash can flex when the trailer bumps down the road.

The electrical system is the part of the build that concerned Natasha the most. It could start a fire or electrocute someone. So, her father wired the box—the part where outside power comes into the trailer. Plus, he supervised her electrical work. She gives the electrical work 16 pages in her book, illustrated by 11 photos and 4 drawings.

Natasha and Brett succeeded with the trailer build. They solved every problem except one. They could not find a space they could afford, where they could live and do pottery. After 18 months, they gave up on Seattle.

They sold the Airstream in two-and-a-half weeks to a buyer from California. Then they moved to Vermont, bought an acreage, built a house, threw pots and raised chickens.

Vermont is a better choice for Natasha and Brett than the other two places they considered: Austin and Nashville. A huge mass of customers live in New York City and Boston, within a day’s drive. These customers will drive to Vermont for amusement, and pay the freight for Natasha’s pots. Rents in Vermont are much cheaper, too, than rents in Seattle, Nashville, or Austin. So is land.

Notice that the author of Tin Can Homestead did not consider any city on the West Coast. She picked the cheapest place to live, with the ability to grow her own food and wood, within a day's drive of the the largest pool of people most able and willing to drive to buy pots. Very interesting watching her make economic calculations. She clearly did a ton of library research. Her Airstream project and and her book will get her high-value design work in New York City.

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