For a long time, I’ve been putting off writing about the Tumbleweed plans I purchased because I really didn’t want to throw Tumbleweed under the bus. Even now, I feel a little bit bad writing this. However, I feel it is important to let people who either now own or are thinking about purchasing tiny house plans from Tumbleweed know what they are really purchasing and what pitfalls to look out for should they choose to use those plans.
I wish I could recommend the plans. I really do. I wish I could tell you that you can give $750 to Tumbleweed and receive something that you could easily build a house from. I wish I could say that, but I really can’t. I have discovered that nearly every page in the entire set of plans I purchased has at least some kind of mistake in it and some pages have multiple mistakes. Some of the mistakes are obvious, some are annoying, some are expensive and some are just plain dangerous.
I previously wrote an entry titled, “Stick to The Plans” and in general, I still subscribe to that idea since deviating from the plans can sometimes create unexpected consequences. However with Tumbleweed, I have discovered that even following the plans can get you into trouble. Here are some examples of the mistakes and inconveniences that have nearly or completely gotten me in trouble with my plans. These are mistakes that you should expect and/or watch out for if you own or decide to purchase similar plans:
- First of all, the ridge beam in my plans has three different dimensions, depending on where you look in the plans. On one sheet, the ridge beam is a 4 x 6, on another sheet it is a 2 x 4 and in the materials list, it is a 2 x 6. That’s crazy! The ridge beam is a very important structural component of the house. It’s not the kind of component whose dimensions you can be ambiguous about. It needs to be right and it needs to be consistent. Not only does the ridge beam size affect the structural stability of the house, it also affects the dimensions of other things, like the rafters. Because I did not know which of the various ridge beam sizes matched up with the rafter dimensions listed in my plans, I ended up having to calculate my own rafter dimensions. While I was doing this, I found myself wondering why in the world I had purchased plans if I was going to have to calculate my own rafter dimensions myself. If somebody can calculate their own rafter dimensions, they can probably create their own plans.
- The plans I purchased specify drilling holes for air ventilation in the bird blocking underneath the eaves. However, if you follow the plans exactly, these holes end up being useless, providing no ventilation under the roof whatsoever. That’s because the plans fail to specify anything to continue the ventilation path up between the rafters and out of the peak of the roof. The plans don’t specify any kind of holes in the nailing blocks that connect the rafters in the middle of the roof, nor do they specify any kind of holes or ventilation in the peak of the roof. If you build the house to plans, you will most likely end up with zero ventilation under your roof and you will most likely also end up with mold in your roof. One of Tumbleweed’s own employees, Ella, ended up with just such a mold problem. You would think that having an employee develop mold in their tiny house would get Tumbleweed to care about an omission like this in their plans, but I guess not. Maybe they’re waiting to do something until somebody develops mold in their tiny house, get sick and sues them. For more information on ventilation, see my other roofing posts, “Watertight!” and “Ventilation, Insulation (and some Frustration).”
- When I was trying to figure out how to build the side walls for my tiny house, I was shocked to find out that it is impossible to tell from the plans how far apart the studs need to be. That’s because the dimensions listed on the plans for the spacing between the studs are completely wrong. I know the dimensions are wrong because if you add up the dimensions for all the spacing between the studs and add the width of all the studs, it adds up to a total length that is greater than the length of the wall. That means that at least some of the dimensions for the spaces between the studs have to be incorrect. Unfortunately, there’s no way to tell from the plans which of those dimensions are right and which ones are wrong. To figure it all out, I had to start with the basics of wall construction. Once I realized that you need a stud every 24” on center and that you need a stud on either side of each window and on either side of the wheel well, I was essentially able to design all of my walls from scratch by myself. At that point, I could finally compare my design to the Tumbleweed design to see which dimensions in the Tumbleweed plans were right and which were wrong. However, just like having to figure out your own rafter dimensions, what is the point of paying somebody for plans if you’re just going to have to re-design the walls yourself?
- The front wall of the Elm is constructed primarily out of four large, vertical beams. The drawing for the front wall specifies these as 6 x 6 beams. In general, 6 x 6 beams have an actual dimension of 5.5” x 5.5” and if you use that dimension, the overall width of the front wall works out correctly. However, in the materials list, the beams are specified as Parallam beams which I discovered after purchasing have an actual dimension of only 5.25” x 5.25”. That means that each of my beams on the front wall was ¼” smaller than what is in the drawing, producing an extra inch of space within my front wall. This isn’t that big a deal. I made up for the extra space by adding a ¼” strip of plywood to the side of each beam. It’s just another example of how the plans are inconsistent and ambiguous. Building any kind of house comes with enough problems and inconveniences. I don’t need extra ones embedded inside the plans I paid good money for.
- Although there is a pretty good materials list at the back of the Tumbleweed plans, this material list is almost impossible to use because Tumbleweed makes no effort to indicate what any of the items are for. For example, the framing list specifies quantities of 3/8”, 5/8”, 1/2” and 3/4” plywood without making any indication where the different thicknesses go within the house. Somehow, you are supposed to just know that the 3/8” goes on the walls, the 5/8” goes on the house roof, the 3/4” goes on the floor and the 1/2” goes on the porch roof of the porch. The plans also specify multiple different dimensions of 1 x 6 and 2 x 4 cedar without specifying which is for window trim and which is for fascia. The plans specify a long list of various length screws and nails without making any attempt to tell you which ones should be used where. I could go on and on. Suffice it to say that it is up to you to figure out where every single item goes and what it’s for. How hard would have been for Tumbleweed to add one more column to materials list giving at least some kind of hint about where each item was supposed to be used?
- For that matter, it would also be nice to know where to purchase the more unusual items that appear in the materials list. A significant number of the materials you need to build tiny house are not available in your local Lowes or Home Depot store. I can’t tell you how much time I wasted trying to figure out where to buy turned Cedar posts for my front porch. In the end, I found some nice posts on the Internet that look so identical to the ones shown in the picture that appears on the front page of my plans that I’m sure they I ended up using the same supplier as Tumbleweed. Wouldn’t it have been great if Tumbleweed could have simply listed that company on the plans so I would know right off the bat where to get my posts and not have to spend hours looking for them? Why is it necessary for every single person who purchases plans from Tumbleweed to have to waste time doing the same research over and over again?
- Just so everyone knows, the plans come with no instructions whatsoever. They contain drawings and nothing else. I know that architectural plans don’t usually come with instructions. However, I still held out some hope that for $750, my plans my come with some kind of instructions. Tumbleweed knows that the people they are selling the plans to are generally inexperienced home builders. It seems to me that at least a few notes or hints could have been provided to help people figure out how to turn the huge materials list at the back of the plans into something that remotely resembles the tiny house pictured in the drawings.
- The final mistake I will share here is by no means the last mistake I found. It’s just the one that upsets me the most. It has to do with dimensions of my front door and the rough opening for the front door. In general, the entryways for tiny houses are small enough that they do not fit the standard door dimensions found at your local hardware store. That means the tiny house builders are required to either find a door that is too big and cut it down to size, build door themselves or pay somebody a lot of money to build a custom door. Even though it scared me, I decided to build my own door. I thought it would be a good experience and something I could be really proud of. Tumbleweed does provide plans for a custom-made door. The problem with the plans is that Tumbleweed specifies the door that is 74” x 28” while only a few pages earlier specifying a rough opening for that door that is only 73” x 29”. It doesn’t take a genius to realize that 74”door is not going to fit in a 73” tall opening. I knew what was shown on my plans didn’t make any sense, so I referred back to an old set of Walden plans that I had originally purchased before I swapped it out for Elm plans. The door and rough opening specified in the Walden plans seemed to make more sense with a 29” x 73” rough opening and a 28” x 72” door. A rough opening 1” wider and 1” taller than the door was same amount of extra space provided for the windows and my windows had installed just fine. I had already built my rough opening to be 29” x 73”, so, a friend and I proceeded to spend 30 hours building a custom-made door that was 28” x 72”. Unfortunately, it was only after I had finished building my door that I discovered that there is no way to install a door into a space that is only 1” wider and taller than the door itself. Generally, you need a space that is at least 2” if not 2 ½” wider and taller than the door you are installing. As a result, I am now stuck with the horrible decision of either shaving down the sides, top and bottom of my custom-made door or somehow making my rough opening bigger, both of which kind of suck. Of all the mistakes I have found in the Tumbleweed plans, this is the one that upsets me the most. Building a custom-made door was the most complicated woodworking project I have ever tackled. However, I did it. I successfully built my own front door (see post on “Building a Front Door“) and it would have been perfect except that now I have to mess up the geometry of that carefully built door because Tumbleweed couldn’t be bothered to specify plans for a door that can actually be installed.
- Update 7/22/15: it turns out that my problems with scale factors on the plans mentioned earlier in this blog entry (now removed) were due to me not following the instructions. If you are printing your own plans, be very sure to select “Do not scale” before you print. The default is to scale the drawings to the size of the paper which will throw off the scale factor. Today, Tumbleweed clarified the issue for me and mailed me a brand new hard copy of the plans, printed correctly
I might be able to forgive Tumbleweed for all of these mistakes if they showed the slightest indication they actually cared about them. At the workshop and in the video, they repeatedly talk about the customer support line that you can contact if you need help. My experience has been that if you ask them for help on something they know the answer to, they will eventually respond to you (although it will frequently take so long that you will have solved the problem by the time they get back to you). However, if you try to ask them about a mistake in their plans, they simply ignore you. Early on in my build, when I first started to find mistakes in the plans, I offered to send all of the errors I found to Tumbleweed so they could fix them. I thought I was being helpful, but I couldn’t find anyone at the company who was remotely interested. When I discovered the problem with the rough opening for the front door, I e-mailed the support folks at Tumbleweed, but never heard anything back from them. Over the course of two months, I contacted them several more times and they repeatedly ignored every single one of my e-mails. Eventually, I spent a good deal of time drafting and sending what I thought was a very nice e-mail to the president of the company, Steve, letting him know the problem and asking for help. Unfortunately, like everyone else at the company, Steve also ignored me. That’s when it finally became apparent to me that nobody at Tumbleweed cares about the mistakes in their plans or about the effects that those mistakes have on the their customer’s builds.
If I had to guess, I would say that Tumbleweed feels they have to focus most of their time and effort on things that actually make money and that unfortunately, the few people who actually build tiny houses from their plans don’t actually make them very much money. I think Tumbleweed makes most of their money on the workshops they put on all over the country. Of the hundred or so people that attend each one of those workshops, I’m guessing less than five actually start building a tiny house, less than two actually finish building a tiny house and less than one actually successfully manages to live in it for an extended period of time. So in reality, that’s one out of 100 people that Tumbleweed deals with who actually try to make full use of their plans. Tumbleweed probably feels it’s better to spend their time on the 99 people willing to pay them for a workshop than it is to spend their time on the one person who manages to successfully use their plans. While I can understand why Tumbleweed would set their priorities this way, I find it kind of unfortunate that Tumbleweed will readily take money from people they know will probably never build a tiny house, but can’t be bothered to provide real support the few people who actually try. Maybe Tumbleweed feels this is the way they have to operate in order to exist in the tiny house market. Maybe they’re right. I just think it’s kind of sad.
I hope I have not been too unfair to Tumbleweed in this blog entry. That really was not my intent. My intent was simply to let people who are interested in Tumbleweed plans know what to expect and what to look out for and perhaps, if I’m lucky, inspire Tumbleweed to improve the quality of their plans. I really do like what Tumbleweed is trying to do within the tiny house community. Some of their products, like the instructional video, are actually very good. I just wish they would give their plans the same amount of work and attention, if for no other reason than to keep other people who try to build tiny houses from their plans from suffering as much as I have.