Corbett and Grace Lunsford’s tiny house on wheels (THOW), called the Tinylab, was made as an educational house to teach folks about home performance.
In this article, I’m going to outline the areas of this tiny house’s home performance that are relevant to mold prevention.
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These mold preventative aspects of the house are:
- Air sealing to prevent vapor from entering the cavities of the enclosure.
- Using vapor retarders wisely, to prevent condensation in walls and the roof.
- Insulation installed without significant air leakage (air leakage = vapor movement = condensation potential).
- Windows flashed and taped correctly to prevent water infiltration.
- Using ventilation to reduce humidity, and avoid negative or positive pressure which can push or pull air through the walls and cause consequences.
I also outline some other facets of the house that make it a healthy home. These are:
- Low VOC materials
- Improving indoor air quality by reducing carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and VOCs
- Controlling humidity
- Managing microbial growth in tanks
- Energy/Power system which provides for flexibility of location
I haven’t seen many tiny homes on wheels built really well. This is only the second one after Terran’s house that I have featured as a mold preventative build.
Air Sealing is Key
In Corbett’s High Performance house, air sealing is incredibly important. Air sealing is how you prevent air from entering the wall and other cavities. This is important because air carries vapor, and it’s usually at a different temperature.
Air leakage brings with it vapor that can condense on hidden surfaces.
This build used materials that are made for Passive House design. Passive House is a design process that includes a major focus on controlling for moisture and condensation within the walls, ceiling, and foundation.
The Exterior Water Resistant Barrier (WRB)
Solitex Mento membrane and tapes were used, just like in this detailed example.
Solitex Mento is a breathable house wrap/WRB that comes with a line of high-quality tapes for sealing around all seams and openings.
Most houses should have a breathable exterior water-resistant barrier over the sheathing, with a vented rainscreen system. A rainscreen is battens that create a gap behind the siding. This lets moisture escape and dry out.
These products are good at air sealing and they are also lower VOC than liquid applied barriers. Many high-quality builders are now using liquid applied barriers in many areas of the house, and that might not work for all chemically sensitive folks.
Interior Vapor Retarder
Inside, the Intello brand smart vapor retarder was used to prevent moisture from entering the cavity in the winter and let it breathe more in the summer, preventing condensation within the wall cavity.
We want to get away from using vapor barriers that trap moisture. Instead, these two permeable membranes, one on the outside of the wall and one on the inside, control air flow, and slow vapor flow but don’t stop it completely.
With Rockwool R 15 in walls and ceiling, the Tinylab house can be moved around the US to multiple climates. You always want to design the house with one climate in mind to optimize all the systems (and the whole house as one system).
This house was built for Atlanta. As they moved the country they had the most difficulty with humidity and condensation in very humid and very cold climates. They attempted to follow the weather to reduce this challenge before returning to Atlanta.
Rockwool is easier to pressure fit into cavities compared to cotton batt. They tried the recycled blue jean insulation at first, but it was sagging in the ceiling, and leaving a little bit of air gap in the wall cavities. You can see that here.
Rockwool holds itself in well with a friction fit in both the ceiling and the walls, without sagging and leaving air gaps. The tighter it is to the framing the better.
If your insulation is not tight to the framing air leakage can lead to moist air moving through the wall and condensating. A lot more moisture moves into the wall with air leakage than with diffusion. Diffusion itself moves very little moisture, not enough to cause problems in a well-designed wall. Matt Risinger explains that in this video.
You need to take your time to cut and fit the insulation as perfectly as possible so that you don’t have air leakage.
They didn’t use spray foam, even though folks like the idea of insulation that in theory is an air sealant and a high R-value insulation product in one.
In reality, spray foam often pulls away from the walls, in which case you lose the air seal. And in a tiny house on wheels that is moved around, it’s going to crack and come apart from the studs almost for sure. Bad idea.
Here is the interior air barrier and air sealing:
There was a big focus on 0 and low-VOC materials throughout the whole build which I appreciate seeing, even though the Lunsford family is not chemically sensitive.
Walls and Cabinets
Purebond plywood which is made with a “soy glue” (probably a polyurethane glue) was used for the interior walls and cabinets as well as the interior door.
If you are sensitive you should test this out for yourself. I prefer plywood made with phenol-formaldehyde which has a defined short period of offgassing before it cures, compared to an unknown glue and VOC that we know less about.
For the walls here I would have preferred just a solid tongue and groove wood. With plywood only used for cabinets.
The floor is APC Cork, which looks awesome and is great for sound dampening. For most moderately to severe chemically sensitive folks, cork flooring is too high in polyurethane glue (and VOCs).
There are many similar floors you could put down in a tiny house that are extremely low (lower than this) in offgassing. I list them here in my flooring post.
Both Rockwool and EPS (polystyrene) foam insulation are used in the house. Both healthy choices. Rockwool is my go-to insulation to consider before moving on to more unusual options.
My insulation post goes more in-depth into insulation choices and why rigid foam is still a good choice for most sensitive folks.
Rigid foams are frequently used as exterior insulation (outside of the framing) as part of the system design to prevent thermal bridging and to help prevent condensation.
This video has some good information on the insulation:
The Devil is in the Details (Like Window Flashing)
When designing and building a mold preventative house, the devil is always in the details. Flashing is an area that is more often than not done wrong on new builds (along with the air sealing layers like the house wrap).
I liked this detailed video below on how to properly install a new window to prevent future moisture issues.
Maybe this looks simple and like anyone who can follow instructions can do it, yet almost every builder makes mistakes here.
It’s rare that I see a build in progress with the house wrap/WRB and all flashing done right. You should supervise this part of any build.
When windows and other openings in the exterior are not detailed right, water that gets behind the siding finds its way to the plywood or OSB sheathing. Enough moisture will cause water damage and mold here. As damage continues it will get into the framing and wall.
In regular builds, other openings in the wall for vents or wiring are often left without any sealing (flashing)! Big problem for water and air getting in.
Water is expected to sometimes get behind the siding – that’s not a fatal situation. It’s supposed to be able to drain, dry to the top and bottom, and stay out of the walls.
The windows are Pella brand wood windows with aluminum cladding on the exterior. The caulking recommended for this combination of materials is DAP 3.0 Window, Door, Trim & Siding High Performance Sealant.
Here are the WRB instructions from 475 if you prefer diagrams to video. All the brands come with detailed instructions, there is no excuse for a builder to not know how to do this.
Exhaust and Ventilation
What Happens if you only have Exhaust Fans
The object in the Tinylab is to have active balanced and controlled ventilation.
It’s easy in a tiny house to create negative pressure with a high CFM (CFM is the amount of air it’s moving) bath fan or range hood. This pulls way too much air out for such a small space. This can happen in any well-built air-sealed house, but it’s exaggerated in a small space.
The problem with that is that you start to pull in air back through any gap that the air can find a path through. And back through places you don’t want to pull through – like exhaust vents or even the composting toilet in this case! You might also be pulling in moist outside air.
You aren’t getting healthy make-up air this way (which is the air that’s coming in to make up for that exhausted air).
Why you want Air Moving In and Out
Without enough air exchange (air coming in and going out) in a small space, you can also raise your carbon dioxide.
Having air exchange (meaning you replace the indoor air with fresh outside air in a controlled way) is the best way to reduce carbon dioxide, VOCs and other pollutants, like those produced by a gas stove.
This house has a number of high tech ways to manage the air quality and replace the air.
An Energy Recovery Ventilator
A Broan HRV (later switched out to an ERV) exchanges indoor and outdoor air in a balanced manner. The ERV is working better for them in their climate because it buffers both humidity and temperature.
You need to look at the house as a system and your climate to determine which one you need.
The negative air (exhaust) side of the ERV is venting out of the bathroom, and the positive air (incoming air) is coming in over and under the loft.
The fresh air comes into the loft area with a damper to control whether it goes down to the sleeping area below.
This video explains what an ERV and HRV do and what the difference is.
Exhausts and Make-up Air
The composting toilet and kitty litter box area has a 3 CFM exhaust vent to keep that air moving out (a very small fan, just enough to keep it moving out).
The gas stove has an exhaust fan venting out over it, to pull out moisture, carbon monoxide and other pollutants and particulates from cooking. When this fan kicks on, it opens up a damper that brings in fresh air right under the stove. This keeps air circulating and moving out right where you want it to.
You can see it in action here:
Monitoring the House
The house has a number of cool monitors that help you know that everything is functioning as it should be.
Defender brand low-level Carbon Monoxide monitors detect low levels of carbon monoxide. This is important if you are running appliances on fuel. Your carbon monoxide level should be 0 in a healthy home.
Elderly, children and those with compromised health are more affected by low levels of carbon monoxide. The cheap monitors are only going to show you when the level is already too high.
Corbett has a radon monitor from Trutech tools, which is useful in a regular house. Though here it is used for teaching purposes. If you are not on a foundation you don’t need a radon monitor. (Though if you have a granite countertop this might be interesting to see!)
Corbett is aiming for 0 radon in all his houses.
C02 & VOCs
The Foobot monitor tests for carbon dioxide (what you breathe out, this will show you if you have enough fresh air), VOCs, particulates, temperature, and humidity.
Retrotec manometer measures the pressure inside, making sure it’s where you want it to be. In the Tinylab they are making sure it’s more or less equalized.
It also monitors the pressure of the incoming air through the ERV. Just an extra data point to show Corbett that everything is functioning, and for educational purposes. For most people, this extra step would not be needed.
Though it would be interesting to see the pressure in the house as a whole. Just seeing that would tell you if something is wrong with one of your fans or exhausts.
Two Dwyer temperature gauges measure the temperature of the incoming air through the ERV, and the air inside the wall on the backside of the insulation. These show how well the house is managing the temperature.
The temperature gauge on the inside of the sheathing can help you to calculate if there is a risk of condensation on the sheathing or exterior vapor barrier (if you have an exterior vapor barrier). Especially if that is coupled with air leakage (which you can use an infrared camera to check for).
A third gauge wraps around a plumbing pipe under the stove to see if there is a chance that pipe will freeze. Smart!
Mechanicals / Systems
Greywater & Blackwater
The greywater tank is on the exterior and is portable and on wheels. I like this idea as you don’t have and scum build-up inside hidden tanks. And not having a blackwater tank definitely cuts down on the kinds of bacteria and mold you might be fermenting in your tanks. (They use a composting Air Head toilet instead).
The freshwater tank, stored inside under the sink, won’t freeze. It uses chlorine to keep it bacteria and fungi-free, it’s not for drinking unless you want to filter the chlorine out.
In the last section, you can see the major leak they had with this tank and how they put more precautions in place after that.
Fuel & Electrical Systems
They have three solar panels that are portable, on a long cord and are set up on the ground. They can be moved around to maximize sun exposure. It’s not a great idea to put panels on the roof; more holes = more chance of leaks there.
You can also plug the house in; the whole house runs on one extension cord that runs off a regular house outlet (15 amps). That is an impressive (low) amount of power usage. It gives you the ability to be super flexible with where you live. Either going off of solar and propane, or one plug into any house.
The stove and hot water heater run on propane, which cuts down on electrical usage.
The Mitsubishi mini-split only needs to produce 5000 BTU of heat, 4000 BTU of cooling to keep this house warm and cool enough for their climate. It runs off only 200-300 watts.
This is something you need to calculate in at the design stage. You don’t want an oversized or undersized system.
Mini Split heat pumps are ductless systems, they do not bring air in or out of the house.
This does a little bit of dehumidifying, and in some conditions, the ERV helps too. But they also found they had to add this desiccant dehumidifier.
This video shows the mechanical systems and is a good overall tour:
Design of Walls, Ceiling, and Floor
The base of the house was designed to use the trailer cavity as an insulation cavity. EPS foam with foil backing was placed in between the metal trailer joists.
Underneath the whole trailer, there is a metal barrier to prevent water from splashing up. There is no thermal break underneath the metal trailer framing. This is a typical design for tiny homes on wheels.
On top of the framing, plywood is placed against the metal. It looks like there might be a slight gap between the EPS and the wood.
I wouldn’t recommend this design of the floor system in terms of preventing condensation and mold.
In fact, the flooring system is where you should put the most thought and planning. Bring in an architect like Cheryl Ceicko, or Passive House designer like Mike Maines.
It’s easy and common to have condensation in the flooring of a tiny house on wheels. The metal trailers make this difficult. There is a lot of thermal bridging. You need to decide between thermally breaking this underneath with foam or building up a breathable system on top.
Those who have designed with mold prevention as the main goal have all built up on top of the trailer. This post shows a detailed example.
EPS is also used around the metal wheel wells, a place that is prone to condensation.
The roof has plywood decking with foam exterior insulation on top (1 inch EPS), then Solitex Mento, then a rainscreen, then 26 gauge metal roofing.
The walls are regular 2 x 4 framing with Rockwool, plywood sheathing, a rainscreen, and is breathable to both sides with the Solitex and Intello products.
Make sure your rainscreen is vented, it’s a tricky detail in tiny houses on wheels.
What went Wrong?
The Freshwater bladder did leak and it was quite the flood. After that, the Lunsfords put some precautionary measures in place.
Anyone preventing mold would want to do this from the start, making sure a leak-prone area is a waterproof protected area and you have these leak alarms.
Mattress on the Floor!
The foam mattress was put right on the floor. Always a no-no! This causes mold underneath. They changed over to an air mattress which does not let moisture transfer through it.
Condensation in Storage
They also had condensation on the wall in the backside (at the back of the drawers that were full of clothes and things) on the really cold days. That’s a place to keep an eye on. You may even want to design your storage a little differently in a cold climate.
Corbett doesn’t have unrealistic expectations on how long a tiny house will last. He says no more than 30 years.
They put a lot of miles on the house but it was designed with an engineer to make sure that it would hold up to those forces. In that sense, it was designed well for the motion.
Building a tiny house when you have sensitivities is in a way a trickier endeavor. You are in a much smaller air space with all the items that offgas that you can’t avoid – appliances, flooring, caulking, glues, windows, doors.
You are also in a much smaller space with EMFs and you cannot get away from that.
In the end, I still like tiny houses for those with mold and chemical sensitivities, but only if you know full well what you are going into and have taken the time to design a detailed mold preventative build.
There’s a lot of work involved here – you are designing a full system. Just about as complicated as a regular-sized house.
The only part that is easier due to the size is that you have an easier time supervising the build. The HVAC is also less complicated.
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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