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Tiny House Blues

Ever heard of a flywheel? It’s a very simple mechanical device: take a giant, heavy wheel, use a bunch of effort up-front to get it rotating on an axel, then occasionally apply small amounts of effort to keep it at speed. In fact, you can totally leave it alone for various durations, and not lose a lot of energy. When designed correctly, one can transfer the wheel’s energy back into other initiatives… like pumping oil or something. I’m not an engineer, but they seem pretty cool, and incentivize short-term effort for long-term gain.

In my past life, this was a common analogy used to describe almost every strategic initiative the military sought to achieve. I lost count of how many times an explanation started with “Like a flywheel, once we get this going, it will blah blah blah blah blah…” In practice, however, the wheel always seemed to grow larger in proportion to the energy expended.

You have more time and manpower to put into rotating the wheel? Great! Some general snaps his fingers, and suddenly the wheel increases in mass by 25%. I don’t know the engineering formulas that explain how a flywheel works, but my guess is that the size and weight of the wheel need to remain constant, or otherwise everything stops when people cease pushing.

If I were smarter, I would have taken this as a warning that the flywheel analogy is not good to apply to complex ventures. And while a regenerative farm may not be as complex as national defense strategy, there are a lot of moving parts. Rather than avoid the flywheel, I used that exact analogy to explain to folks what I was trying to achieve at the Grove.

“Like a flywheel, once I get the sheep moving, with the chickens behind them, while the market garden slowly grows, I’ll blah blah blah blah blah…” Besides, I had an ace in the hole to help really get energy (and revenue) into this wheel from day one: a dear friend’s tiny home to set up as an Air BnB rental.

When the tiny home arrived here last November, I was ecstatic. Kim and I took pictures, planned landscaping, shopped for decorations, and began looking at other Air BnB’s around the area for ideas. The "tiny homeowner", my good friend Tanner, and I did a ton of work on it over the winter. When we sat down at a white board and started crunching numbers, we were very happy at where we could be in a year or so. Before Tanner left town, we set a target date of May 1st to have the thing up and running.

Fast forward to August, and nothing would make me happier than to douse the thing in gasoline, shoot fireworks at it, and toast marshmallows over its embers.

I have a list of recommendations if you plan to ever put a tiny house (or any building, really) on your property: 1) Ensure you are properly zoned to have a “permanent” mobile home, RV, or pre-fabricated structure, 2) ensure you have the proper hook-ups for power, water, and sewer/septic in the designated area, 3) ensure you can legally dispose of humanure if your mobile home/RV has a compost toilet, 4) do all of these things before you ship said building 2,182 miles from Portland, Oregon.

Take a wild guess at how many of these I did.

The first time it occurred to me that I may be doing something improper was back in March, when I was cold called from the county zoning commissioner. He’d happened to drive by, notice I was on the back of my property burying electrical conduit with an electrician, and was curious. I remember the phone call like it was yesterday. We’ll skip the intros and head right into the meat of the discussion:

“Did you get a building permit, Mr. Hansard?”, the commissioner asks.

“Building permit, sir?”, I reply.

A moment of awkward silence. The tiny house is already built; I have no idea what he is talking about.

“Well, we’ll need to get you a building permit. Are you planning to hook-up to septic or sewer?”

Nice, an easy one. He’ll love this:

“Actually, sir—neither. The tiny house has a compost toilet, and we are going to run the gray water out the back and build a natural filtration system. The house is pretty cool—with solar panels you can take it entirely off-grid. I’ve found a great way to take care of the solid stuff (not that I’m looking forward to it, you understand), but figure it fits the whole natural-sustainable theme of my farm.”

More awkward silence. He’s likely trying to decide if I’m joking with him (I’m not—I’m really going to compost the poop and run the liquid stuff out the back into a natural filter. He has no idea what I’m capable of, but I’ve endured worse).

“You can’t do that, Mr. Hansard.”

Sure I can? I mean, it’s definitely possible. Maybe the guy needs to see a YouTube video—it’s done all over the world where folks don’t have running water or sewer. Mostly third-world countries. What’s the problem? Before I can explain:

“The only legal way to dispose of… waste… in Washington county is for it to be deposited into a septic or sewer system. We don’t want to contaminate the water ways.”

One hundred meters away, a herd of approximately 40 beef cow linger in the water. I make eye contact with one. He smiles as he lifts his tail, and there are a series of small splashes in the water behind him. He’s clearly mocking me.

“But I have a compost toilet?”, I reply.

The commissioner could say something here, but instead ignores my comment. He knows I’m about to realize what he’s getting at, which is that there is serious work to do before anyone will be allowed to stay in the home. One task will be replacing the compost toilet with an actual toilet.

I hear shuffling of papers through the phone:

“Actually, Mr. Hansard, it looks like you are zoned R2…”

Exactly. It’s a tiny house. On residential. I see no problem. He continues:

“In Washington county, mobile homes and RVs aren’t allowed on R2.”

Another pause. The hamsters running the flywheel in my brain aren’t doing very well.

“But it’s for my farm,” I reply. This is dumb and unimportant. But, frankly, I feel dumb at this point, which makes the response appropriate.

“Your farm… is it located at the same address as your home?” he asks.

There is no way this question is good for me.

“Yes…” I say, despite the growing sense that I should have been lying through my teeth this entire conversation. I hear mooing from the cows behind me. I interpret this as laughter.

The commissioner sighs. He clearly doesn’t want to say the next sentence. “Well, Mr. Hansard, in Washington county, you aren’t allowed to operate a farm business on R2, either.”

Forget flywheels. I’m pre-wheel stone age.

It took a while for that last nugget to really sink in. I wandered around the property, occasionally cursing to (and at) myself; other times spontaneously throwing whatever random objects I stumbled upon. It's hard to describe the deep embarrassment and shame that was slowly growing inside me. Against the advice of almost everyone in my life, I'd left the service past the 10 year mark (turning down promotion on the way out-- twice), drug my family to an entirely new place, and started a hair-brained business venture that I had exactly zero prior experience in.

And as it turns out, I hadn't even bothered to buy property where it was legal to do any of the things I'd either started and planned to do.

Kim is going to murder me.

Fast forward a month and I’m standing tall in front of the county zoning board explaining that, despite how I might appear and act, I haven’t had to be a real adult before. When you bounce around the military for 13 years, renting everywhere you live, not having to worry about healthcare or dental coverage, you miss a lot. Fortunately, I was so honest and forthright regarding all the ways I was planning to break their zoning regulations, that it was easy to believe it was deep ignorance, rather than malice, that had put me in the position of trying to place an illegal tiny home on an illegal farm. I was able to get re-zoned to A2, which allowed for both the farm and the tiny home.

While this was a huge load of my chest, it had become abundantly clear that there was a lot of work ahead of me to get this tiny home up and running.

Despite being approved to proceed, I must treat the trailer-mounted tiny home like a full size, single wide mobile home. That means it must be on cinderblocks, with tie downs, and equipped with home-like connections to water, power, and sewer, rather than the current RV style hook-ups.

Electrical ($$), water ($$), and sewer ($$$$$$), are just a matter of capital—although much more than I expected to expend at this point.

But the blocks and tie downs have been my personal “Hell Race”-like endurance event. Before you put a mobile home on cinderblocks, you must dig and fill “pillars” that reach below the frost line. For my area, that means 18” deep holes. You then fill the hole with a gravel or cement, which provides a base upon which to stack the necessary cinderblocks. These blocks happen to be 18” long, so I effectively had to dig out an 18” x 18” x 18” cube of earth for all 8 pillar locations. No problem: surely I can knock that out in a half day.

Fast forward 8 hours and I’ve broken a shovel, spent $60 to rent an (useless) auger, and have *maybe* half the pillars at the appropriate dimensions. And I hadn't even considered the time and labor required to fill these holes back up with gravel, move the tiny house back into place, and get all the blocks properly positioned.

I realize that this is why they used to make prisoners dig up and break rock by hand. It sucks.

As of today, I’ve managed to dig and fill the pillar holes, level the tiny house on blocks (thanks, Dad), and begin digging the final 4 holes for the mobile home tie downs. But there has definitely been a day or two that I've started heading over to work on my holes, shovel in hand... then decide half-way there maybe it's better to do something else today.

We’ll get there eventually. Unless there's a fire. Entirely accidental, of course, but I do have a bag of marshmallows and bottle of champagne ready, just in case. I’ll be sure to keep you all up to speed.

Next time, however, we’ll switch gears and have an exciting story including goats, puppies, and mud-built structures. Stay tuned!

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