Some days just begin themselves. Today Elon Musk inspired my daughter to look up the Boxabl homes because he is living in one (probably only a few hours a week but still). She emailed me to see if I had heard of them. A Boxabl is a prefabricated 375 SF finished house that costs under $50,000, is shipped folded flat, and then unfolded and installed in less than an hour with the help of very big machines. Transportation for the equipment would take longer than installing the house. Of course, Musk is on a budget right now since he is launching himself into space (expensive) and is living near the SpaceX launch site in rural Texas. He needed emergency housing.
Yes, but you can’t build it . . .
I proceeded to explain to her that yes, there are lots of these (well, maybe not dozens) but the problem is that even Elon Musk couldn’t put one up in just any city. Zoning restrictions are designed to prevent just that. Of course, Musk has lawyers and would figure out how to get around the zoning restrictions but normal people who need these houses have not been able to.
The problem for the housing insecure is not the inability of the housing industry to produce attractive, affordable, durable, insulated, and waterproofed housing before the next hurricane makes many more thousands of under-housed people homeless. It is their inability to get around zoning restrictions designed to keep the riff-raff out. That and the fact that developers and contractors make more money building much less well-built McMansions so their motivation is not so great.
You can only build it where you can’t afford to live
People making less than $50,000 a year need to be in cities and towns where the jobs are. They can’t afford to build in rural areas where there are no zoning restrictions because there are also no utilities. You can drill a well, install a septic tank, and buy a gas-powered generator to back up solar electricity, but that will cost more than the home and the land put together. Rural areas also lack the institutional supports of city living. I just discovered, for example, that in some rural areas of Alabama fire trucks have to carry their own water.
While writing this all down, I had left the stream of YouTube videos of Boxables being built playing in another window. YouTube can be hypnotizing as it moves from one related video to the next much like cable news as it goes from one political opinion to another. After a while, I became aware that I was listening to the Wooded Beardsman showing me how to build a cabin. Unlike many of the DIY videos, he has a soothing voice, speaks clearly, and has a non-shakey camera—and is not selling anything.
By noon, I had listened to the sounds of wood construction for 3 hours. I found it comforting to hear the simple step-by-step narration of a crew of people enjoying putting up a small wooden cabin in the woods.
Elon Musk and the Wooded Beardsman
From Boxabls, I had drifted into the Wilderness Living Challenge. The Wooded Beardsman has his own YouTube Channel and seems to work full time making videos of himself and others who are learning to live in the woods as self-sustainingly as possible. There are well over 100 videos.
What does the Bearded Woodsman have to do with Elon Musk or cohousing or housing security?
For one the Bearded and Musk are both entrepreneurs who have jumped off cliffs and for whom others have predicted dire consequences—much like every cohousing project. While Musk has become a multi-billionaire holding unorthodox views on space travel, the pandemic, and truthfulness in securities exchange, the Bearded Woodsman was one of the early work from home pioneers who took to the woods to live off the land in a Canadian climate where few crops grow.
Living off the land in this case is accomplished by having his own YouTube channel with 1.34 million subscribers, 7.28 million views each month, and about 243,000 each day. There is no average income for popular YouTube entrepreneurs but the high is reported by Investopedia to be $20 million a year and the low to be nothing. The Bearded Woodsman’s income is estimated to be more than $750,000 a year. While estimates of Musk’s income go much higher, he is also viewed as being on the edge of the bankruptcy abyss if not in danger of prison based on his questionable decisions. The Bearded Woodsman seems to be a bit more grounded but maybe he doesn’t have the same press coverage.
Cohousing has certainly not lived up to the doomsday predictions and guffaws of the real estate investors. Once a group reaches the point of finding suitable land, it is unlikely to fail. Once built, it thrives. And it’s popularity combined with zoning restrictions is pricing it out of the affordable market for anyone without college degrees and professional incomes.
And housing security?
I started this long story to encourage people that if they understood construction, they might be less concerned about taking risks with unconventional design and building techniques to lower construction costs and housing expectations. Understanding construction is comforting because then it isn’t a mystery. No one can tell you that you have to have this expensive material or that. For the most part, almost none of the technologies being used to build housing for low-income households are risky. All those buildings still standing from thousands of years ago were built using simple techniques like post and lintel and sloped walls.
We still have to solve the problem of where one can build one’s own pyramid or yurt or any building that just stands up and doesn’t scream I’m bigger than you are. But for the time being, understanding construction might be a giant step forward for many people and lend confidence to the work of confronting zoning.
Learning to Build a Small Cabin in the Woods
This particular four-hour video by the Bearded Woodsman records the full build of a cabin in the Canadian woods, skipping over the parts that are just repetitious. And “full build” doesn’t include the outhouse or interior finishing. It’s just the structure sealed off from the weather with a wood-burning stove.
And why was it comforting? More comforting than my usual writing background of MSNBC?
Because I grew up with people going out and building things themselves. Fixing or adding onto their houses. Enclosing a porch to make a room or finishing an attic. Putting in a new foundation here and there. Replacing the roof. Replumbing the bathroom. I had five uncles who used to take on part of my grandmother’s house every summer and then go dig basements and build their own houses. (One summer they negotiated a landmark deal. They would paint her house but they had to be allowed to keep beer in the icebox. I think that only worked because they pointed out that the icebox wasn’t actually in the house. It was actually on the enclosed back porch. So she got her house painted and it remained Methodist.)
In the case of the cabin, the builders were felling trees and dragging them over to be lumbered, after wiping the snow off the LumberPro portable sawmill. When you can experience this process, construction is not such a mystery. It is less anxiety-provoking to consider living in a building that has not been constructed using modern materials or technology when you understand the most basic process of post and lintel construction. How to level a floor beam and square a corner. They do use electric tools but those have been pretty standard for over a hundred years.
I do wonder how many views a channel on building a cohousing community might attract?
For extra credit:
First electric drill, 1889, Australia. First mechanized sawmill, Roman, 3rd century. Steam-powered, England, 1663. Portable onsite sawmills, before the 1897 Sears Roebuck Catalogue introduced the Builders Hardware section with everything needed to build a house.
Claimed by them (and who is to argue) the best electric sawmill you can buy today is made in the USA by the Hud-Son Forest Equipment located on the edge of the Adirondack Mountains. Their Hunter Sawmill is ~$2,500 unassembled and with free shipping. Most of their customers assemble it themselves and save the $650 assembly fee. Hud-son is also home to the world’s only Chainsaw Museum.