It isn’t a complete lack of experience that’s been the biggest challenge for Tacoma’s Szigeti-Seeburger family, as they gradually build a tiny trailer house in their front yard this summer. Nor was it the giant windstorm last weekend that dumped inches of rain onto the exposed plywood interior, or even the moment when they realized they’d cut the rafters several inches too short. No, the biggest challenge has been one many families can relate to: getting everyone together at the same time.
“The biggest problem is not enough time,” says Christina Seeburger, who got the idea to build a tiny house on wheels with her three sons last year and began this June. “You think you can’t do something, but when you start you realize you can. ...We’re literally doing this one step at a time.”
And Seeburger does mean step by step, literally, from a book. The North End-based anesthetist was inspired by an article she’d read on a similar house built by an eighth-grade girl and her parents. When the girl’s father died suddenly, her mom helped her finish the project.
“I thought, ‘Wow, that’s amazing you could do that with a kid,’” explains Seeburger, who’s divorced with three teenage sons and a daughter. She had also been frustrated lately at her lack of DIY skills when things went wrong around the house.
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So she enrolled in a two-day workshop with Portland Alternative Dwellings, buying their e-book of plans to build a small trailer house. She bought a sturdy trailer designed for such a purpose and some tools — a sawstop table saw, a chop saw, a drill — borrowing other tools as necessary. Then she went to work convincing her kids.
“There’s nothing like teenage boys building something with their mother,” Seeburger says with a grin. “They think I’m an idiot. ... Only one in 10 people who do the Portland workshop end up following through. Even my mother told me I’d never do it. So I thought, I’ll show you that I can ... and I thought it would be a lot of fun.”
In the end, it was sons Chris Szigeti, 19 and a sophomore at Santa Clara University, and Nick, 17 and a senior at Bellarmine Prep, who agreed to give up their free time this summer to work on the house with Seeburger. Alex, 22, had already gone to Tokyo to get settled into an engineering master’s degree, and India, 14, wasn’t interested.
“She put in a couple of screws and then called it quits,” says Seeburger.
Working literally from the plans, the three bought lumber and plywood, set up the saw on the garden table and the trailer on the driveway, and got going. They made the frame of 2-by-4 planks bolted to the trailer bed and walled with 3/8-inch plywood, with rigid foam insulation beneath the tongue-and-groove plywood subflooring. They left a wide doorway for the custom-made French door and spaces for four low-emissivity and argon gas windows. Last weekend, Seeburger installed the sleeping loft joists (2-by-6 planks) and plywood loft floor.
“When I started, the plans were all Greek to me,” she admits. “But you just Google stuff and find out. There are YouTube videos on how to do anything.”
Then came some challenges. The windstorm last weekend whisked away the tarp and soaked the plywood subfloor, before Nick and Chris began cutting rafters only to find that the plans brought them several inches short. Eventually, with a bit of math, the boys — one a mechanical engineering sophomore, the other planning to become a civil engineer — figured out a solution.
“I knew we’d have a lot of stuff like this, because it’s the little things that get you,” says Chris, who has built projects like go-karts in the past.
But, he says, he thinks the whole project is “cool,” and Nick agrees.
“I thought it would be difficult and take a long time, but that we could do it,” Nick says.
“You get to see something cool progress,” adds Chris.
And the neighbors also get to see it progress. Just feet away from the sidewalk, the tiny house has attracted a lot of attention and admiration.
“Any time we’re working, three or four people will stop and watch,” Seeburger says. “They’ll say they didn’t think it was possible or ask what we’re doing.”
The biggest challenge, though, is time: The family doesn’t have much more of it. It’s been hard enough over the summer to find building time in between Seeburger’s work schedule at St. Joseph’s Medical Center and the boys’ summer job hours at Cheney Stadium. This weekend Chris leaves for Santa Clara, and Nick gets back into full days of high school and rowing crew. And it takes three people to put a roof on — which Seeburger is keen to do before any more rain sets in and warps the plywood. Then there’s all the interior construction to finish: a sink, cupboards, a fold-down table and a composting toilet.
Seeburger will get an electrician in to wire the house, including a small heater, and she’s not intending to put in plumbing. Her eventual goal is to use it as accommodation when she travels to long-distance running events, staying in campgrounds and showering there.
It’s a big project, and the costs aren’t small: around $7,000, much of which was the trailer, the sawstop and the French door. But for Seeburger and her family, it’s worth it.
“It’s given me confidence with little things I might not have tried to fix before, but I can do now,” Seeburger says. “My construction vocabulary is awesome.”
It’s also helped Chris and Nick get some practical construction experience, which will help them in their engineering careers, they say.
And it’s been a project that binds them together. Seeburger, who’s in remission for breast cancer, says that, while that isn’t a driving factor, “there’s a little part of me that thinks, if something happened, they could look at this and say, ‘Hey, we did that together.’ Who wouldn’t want that?”
Mostly, though, building a tiny house has just been fun.
“I coach cross country, and I always tell the kids the only way to get to the finish line is one foot in front of the other,” says Seeburger. “People don’t realize what they’re capable of. I’m tenacious. That’s why I’m building this.”
TINY HOUSE TIPS
How do you build a tiny house on wheels? Take some tips from Christina Seeburger, who’s making one with her kids.
▪ Get plans and advice from Portland Alternative Dwellings, padtinyhouses.com and tinyhousedesign.com/portland-alternative-dwellings.
▪ Find out more from online videos, Pinterest and construction dictionaries.
▪ Figure out your team. You need at least three people, advises Seeburger, for most of the project.
▪ Get a trailer. Seeburger bought the Iron Eagle Tiny Home trailer with additional leveling jacks for stability and a metal underplate to protect against road debris. ironeagletrailers.com.
▪ Make sure you have all the tools you need. Seeburger invested in a sawstop, which is safer for kids as it stops automatically on sensing human body parts close to the blade.
▪ Research local codes. Temporary dwellings like tiny houses don’t have to follow the same rigorous code as permanent houses, but they do have to comply with height restrictions on the road (13 feet).
▪ Build in summer, unless you have an indoor space, to protect from rain.
▪ Allow at least 70-80 hours to complete the exterior and up to three times as long for the interior.
▪ Explore IKEA for compact interior storage and furniture.