How to Build a Tiny House – Part 1: Clearing the Building Site

The first step in learning how to build a tiny house is clearing the building site, should you choose to have a set location.

June 2014

By the Editors of Skills Institute Press

Backyard Sheds and Tiny Houses Book Cover

Good things do come in small packages. Just ask internationally recognized small living expert, Jay Shafer. Ranging in size from 100 to 120 square feet, Jay Shafer's DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses (Skills Institute Press LLC, 2013) features beautiful small houses can be used as guest cottages, art or writing studios, home offices, craft workshops, vacation retreats or a full-time residence. Whatever your building goal, this book will teach you how to plan and build your structure from the ground up. The following excerpts from chapter four, "How to Build a Tiny House," walks you through the steps of clearing a building site, including the safe way to fell a tree and removing stumps and roots.

You can purchase this book from the GRIT store: Jay Shafer’s DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses.

Looking for other steps? Check them out in How to Build a Tiny House.

Clearing the Building Site

Before you can building in your backyard or anywhere else, you will need to prepare the site, mostly by removing any vegetation, boulders, and small trees that are in your way. On rough sites, this can be a formidable task but for a small building in your backyard it’s more likely to be quite straightforward. When the area has been cleared you can begin construction by laying whatever type of foundation suits the site and the structure you plan to build.

 

Clearing vegetation
Cut bushes down to ground level with a pair of pruning shears, and dig the roots up with a shovel the same way you would those of a small tree (below). Clear tall grass and vines with a gas-powered trimmer; or use a scythe or a hand sickle, always holding your free hand away from the blade.

 

Removing trees
Felling large, mature trees is a relatively complex operation, but a chain saw can put the job within anyone’s reach (see below). Until you are experienced at working with a power saw, however, restrict your efforts to trunks whose diameter is less than the length of the saw blade. It is easier to fell a tree in the direction of its natural lean, but this may not always be possible. You can direct a tree away from its natural lean using wedges and a tapered hinge cut in the trunk.

 

Removing rocks
For stones that are too large for you to budge, wrap rope or a chain around it and use a comealong (see below). Or, split them into smaller pieces that can be moved more easily: Fit a drill with a masonry bit and bore holes in the rocks, then drive in steel wedges with a sledgehammer until the rocks break apart.

Chainsaw Safety Tips Removing Trees Caution

 

The Safe Way to Fell a Tree

Chain Saw Safety Gear

 1. Cutting a notch in the trunk.
On the side of the tree that faces the direction of its natural lean, hold a chain saw with the blade angled at 45 degrees to the trunk.

Turn on the engine, let it come to full throttle, and make an angled cut about one-third of the way through the trunk. Pull the blade from the cut.

Holding the blade horizontally at the bottom of the angled cut, saw to the end of the cut (right). Retract the blade and push the wedge-shaped piece from the notch.

 

Man Cutting Notch in the Trunk

 

 Man Making the Felling Cut

 

2. Making the felling cut.
On the side of the trunk opposite the notch, start a horizontal cut 2 inches above the bottom of the notch.

Stop cutting when the blade is 2 to 3 inches from the back of the notch, creating a hinge (image at right). The trunk will pivot on the hinge, and the tree should fall. If not, drive in wedges.

Man Felling Cut

 

Removing Logs, Stumps, and Roots

Once large trees are cut down, you can maneuver the logs around your building site with a hand-operated comealong. Rather than chopping down small trees and then getting rid of the roots, you can uproot them (below), then either dispose of them or replant them somewhere else on the site.

Transplanting Trees
If you opt for transplanting, keep in mind that trees taller than 10 feet with trunks that are greater than 3 inches thick will be unwieldy to move and will be less likely to survive when replanted. A tree’s chances are greatest if you transplant in a period of low growth activity—in spring before leaves appear, or in autumn after they fall.

Moving logs
The comealong, a tool with a ratchet mechanism and a lever that is moved back and forth to reel in a cable, gives you the mechanical advantage needed to clear out heavy logs by hand (below).

Removing stumps
For trees that were already cut down, uproot small stumps the same way you would a small tree; larger ones can be ground down to below grade using a rented stump grinder (below). For very large stumps, it’s best to hire a professional to remove them.

Man Dragging Log With Comealong

Dragging a log with a comealong
Wrap a heavy-duty chain with a hook around the log, about 2 feet from the end, using the hook to hold the chain in place. Fasten a second chain, without a hook, around the trunk of a tree in the direction you want to pull the log. Unless you will be cutting down this tree, protect the bark with a sleeve, such as a bicycle inner tube. Hook the extendable cable of a comealong (photograph, inset) to the chain on the log, and hook the stationary end to the chain around the tree. Draw the log toward the tree by moving the handle on the comealong back and forth (above). Release the tension mechanism on the comealong, remove the chain from the tree, attach it to another tree further along, and repeat the process as many times as necessary to move the log off the building site.

Digging Out Small Trees or Stumps

Man Removing the Rootball

 

Removing the rootball
Using a flat spade with a sharp blade, slice through the roots in a 30- to 36-inch-wide circle around the trunk. Push the blade into the ground at about a 30-degree angle toward the trunk to taper the root ball for easy removal (left).

Dig a 24- to 30-inch-deep access trench around the rootball.

Sever the taproot—the root section that heads straight down into the ground— and any other uncut roots under the tree with the spade. With a helper, lift out the tree and rootball.

For further instructions, see How to Build a Tiny House.


A Portable Stump Grinder

An alternative to the labor-intensive process of chopping or digging up stumps is to rent a stump grinder. This gas-powered machine has an angled blade that shaves a stump down to ground level quickly and easily. On some models, the handlebars can be attached to a holder at one end of the tool, as shown here, or to a longer holder at the other end, to allow the cutter to reach stumps near obstructions. A tough rubber flap deflects chips away from the operator, but be sure to wear goggles when you are running the machine.

Portable Stump Grinder 

Reprinted with permission from Jay Schafer's DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses: Build Your Own Guest Cottage, Writing Studio, Home Office, Craft Workshop, or Personal Retreat by Jay Schafer and published by Skills Institute Press LLC and Four Lights Tiny House Company, 2013. Buy the book from our store: Jay Shafer’s DIY Book of Backyard Sheds & Tiny Houses.

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